Born in Saskatchewan, educated at the Alberta College of Art and Design and now living in Montréal, Steve Heimbecker is recognized for his contributions in audio art, installation, and multi-channel sound compositions. Since the mid-1980s he has exhibited and performed across Canada and Europe. In 2005 he won an Honorary Mention in Interactive Media at Prix Ars Electronica (Linz, Austria).
Saskatchewan (Canada), 1959
Residence: Sherbrooke (Québec)
- Visual artist
On the Web
Drip Doodle #1 (1995), 11:56
Elevator Music (1994), 18:31
Engine: An Octaphonic Movement (1992), 36:26
Feathers and Flies #1 (1998), 16:58
The Forum for the Alienation of Art (1995), 3:45
The Long Walk (2007), 10:13
Songs of Place: Halifax (2001-04), 34:43
Songs of Place: Île de Montréal (2001-04), 49:40
Songs of Place: Springwater (2000-04), 38:00
Songs of Place: Vancouver (2002-04), 49:40
Spin Cycle (1995), 23:46
Sunday MSM (2006), 8:02
Tic Talk #1 (1993), 16:59
independent releases / GPH 001 / 2005
independent releases / OBQA 0102 / 2005
OHM / Avatar / AVTR 015/16 / 1999
Victo / VICTO 113 / 2009
Pogus Productions / P 21041-2 / 2006
Artextes Éditions / ENG 02 / 2003
CEC-PeP / CEC 95CD / 1995
In the Press
John Kelman, All About Jazz, Monday, May 21, 2007Intriguing sounds were many and diverse, ranging from the natural to the artificial, and there was considerable processing applied.
Vincent Bonin, eContact!, no. 9:2, Thursday, March 1, 2007J’aime ce processus d’invention de règles, cette façon d’être à la fois aussi restrictif et ouvert que possible. Je préfère penser que l’art c’est la vie, et je construis donc des chemins qui prolongent ma propre vie en tant qu’artiste.
Cameron Skene, The Gazette, Saturday, January 13, 2007Sound isn’t just noise or music — it’s the raw material for a growing number of audio artists, and Montréal is building a strong international reputation for this form of creative expression
With a festival as inherently risk-taking as the Festival international de musique actuelle de Victoriaville (
Day three of the 24th edition of
Victoriaville matière sonore
Contrasting with Signal Quintet’s performance, Victoriaville matière was a strong idea on paper that didn’t always succeed in the implementation. The premise was good: construct a forum for a number of composers/sound artists to create individual pieces based on field recordings made around the Victoriaville area. Have the process overseen by renowned experimental blender of natural and industrial sounds, Francisco López, and link the pieces together into a single work with a broader overriding arc. In addition to López, Aimé Dontigny, Louis Dufort, Chantal Dumas, Steve Heimbecker, Mathieu Lévesque, Hélène Prévost and Thomas Phillips all contributed to the 90-minute show.
Similar to the Theresa Transistor performance on Day Two, but in the larger Colisée venue, the artists were placed in the center of the hall, surrounded on all sides by the audience and with a sound system facing in around the periphery of the hall. With the equipment setup on a riser with minimal blue lighting, there was little for the audience to watch, encouraging it, instead, to simply absorb the sounds without visuals and to find meanings on a more personal and imagination-driven level.
The eight pieces were linked by a nature recording of birds, used to allow one artist to leave the center stage so that the next could take his/her place. Other than
Intriguing sounds were many and diverse, ranging from the natural to the artificial, and there was considerable processing applied. Like Theresa, equal importance was given to where individual sounds appeared and to how they traveled around the aural landscape. The problem was that, to a large extent, the approaches used were obvious and often overly dramatic. Lacking the nuance of Signal Quintet (and, because these were solitary pieces, the interaction of the earlier performance), the overall levels were high, the sounds often overly dense and the collages often too busy for the listener to sense any sort of unified statement.
Sometimes it’s good to make the audience come to the music rather than the other way around, and a better balance of dynamics and more discernable narrative for each piece would have made the entire show more successful. Still, credit is due for an imaginative experiment that, some shortfalls notwithstanding, was well worth pursuing.
Part I — November 30, 2004
Is there a connection between Songs of Place and the soundscapes created by R Murray Schafer, for example?
I was fortunate enough to be in an exhibition that was associated with the first international acoustic ecology conference entitled The Tuning of the World, off R Murray Schafer’s important book of 19771. I was already working with multi-channel sound systems, in natural environments. I think of acoustic ecology as a way of being critical about the shape and sound (related to) the architecture of an environment. It is a way of having tools to be critical. I prefer those tools to musical tools, because musical tools don’t really envelop or encompass the tonality or the spontaneity of acoustic environments: real time, sort of random. Over years of working, I am not even sure about the randomness of sonic events in the environment. There is definitively rhythm and repetition. So I learned to listen in a different way. Therefore, when I listen and produce, I am thinking of those architectures in a much different kind of pattern recognition than what would be associated with music. It is a much longer kind of envelope or periodic envelope of repetitions. And these things, I think, we (acoustic ecologists and I) would all have in common. The approach and manifestation of our explorations I think can be quite different.
Please describe briefly the series of concepts underlying the alternating audio and video editing in Songs of Place.
As you know, I have been fascinated by this idea of the squaring of the circle, and the squaring of the circle is an idea of proportions. My first relation to it was when reading texts about alchemy2 but it’s also an architectural representation of proportions. What really struck me when starting to work with eight-channel sound design is that the speaker placements made essentially two squares placed on top of each other at forty-five degree angles to each other. The points of those two squares created a circle. Those eight points, in the sense of the circle, can be divided up like a pie to find a centre, which is the sweet spot of the surround sound system. That sweet spot is something I try to identify in the cityscape when I record for the Songs of Place series. I look for a sweet spot, the centre space, which is the most obvious centre point of the architecture of the city. The city that is developed over decades or centuries, by the people who have lived there, so it is an organic process of growing as far as I can tell, even though it is systematic and measured. My idea is to find that sweet spot and go outward with the idea of the squaring of the circle, which also represents the four cardinal directions and the secondary directions. So there is a lot of layering of information related to the system of proportions, which is very nice for me. I really feel that within that context, with the usage of that kind of language, we can really stretch the boundaries of what that representation might be and still have a common solid ground to stand on in the work. The eight recordings that I make are all surround sound recordings. They each include the four cardinal directions and when they are edited together, they are edited with a process of very short edits. The end result of that is at times a little bit overwhelming, especially when you are not familiar with it. That’s my own experience with it until I started learning how to listen to it.
When I began the Songs of Place series, the first project (Halifax) was actually an audio-only portrait. So it’s Songs of Place: Île de Montréal, that is the first time I brought together visuals and audio (in this series)3. The video is typically shot at the location of the sound recording and it is intended to be shot at the same time as the audio recording. In this series of 4, I do not take the video camera and look at the centre of the city or that sweet spot, I look externally with the video camera, outward, from the sweet spot. What ever happens within the frames of the video is what happens in the audio space. The videos are a visual reference to the occurrences of the sound space as they are “swooshing” and being edited in this very systematic but sort of abstracted way. To me they do help to give the people experiencing the piece added information to ground themselves in the process of understanding the piece. I have tried to make the video non-linear in the sense that there is so much video information at any one time, that it is impossible to watch all of it at once. The only way that they can be observed is that the viewers makes their own choices of edits by their sense of observation, so that audio cues may inform them to look at an image or maybe images make them understand an audio cue. They are designed specifically to empower the viewer or the listener. For me, the delineation between video and audio is too difficult sometimes.
The viewer, as he or she begins watching one of the Songs of Place, tries to establish a link between the audio and visual sequences, between the sound and its source. And, after a while, this surveillance-like approach slips towards a more meditative mood… In this fragment of time, video and audio end up being different. The sequence of images calls for judgement and comparison, whereas the sounds lead to an immersive, enveloping experience. Since the sounds here are never divorced from their sources, the electroacoustic notion of the sound object (the composer breaking down the sounds to the point of granulation) is also put to the test4.
A friend of mine, very early, in Calgary, said to me “the nature of amplification is distortion”. I don’t find myself particularly fascinated by the process of amplifying to distort. I am more interested in synthesizing from the opposite way around. These ideas for these grand, large-scale sound gathering projects, which are the Songs of Place process, are about synthesizing, and distilling something new from a large pot. It’s like bringing a soup down to a good base. So this is my interest, and in that, I also to try to keep the sense of the space, which is the emptiness. But the process of observation by the listener or viewer is not about surveillance in the external way, or in the typical way we associate surveillance, because surveillance is typically looking outward from our centre point. And because I am already doing that, the viewer has to look inward, because the reflection is back, not outward. And in that sense, the surveillance is of the viewer. The surveillance is the viewer becoming self aware of his own edit decisions and choices when listening and recognizing the different occurrences of the piece. And I think it is the most powerful part of the meditations that are set up by theses pieces. At some point, the listeners becomes aware that they are listening. And that’s an interesting moment for me.
On this account philosopher Henri Bergson made a distinction between measured, metered time (mathematical time), and duration, a temporal flow understood only through consciousness5.
It’s one of the areas of interest that I have had. It’s the idea of event time, that it is separate from clock time. I am actually disillusioned by the idea of standard time, which was invented by a Canadian6. I am a proponent of event time. Through my studies of Einstein’s relativity theory, and so on and so forth, I started looking at sound and the frequency of sound, as being a measurement of an event (because sound is a combination of time and space). This is also a postulation related to the macrocosm and the microcosm of listening, and actually to the vibrational universe, and the idea that everything is vibrating, from sound and light frequency down and to atoms and so on. There is a location in the relativity of that measurement, that vibrational measurement. If we want to identify ourselves outside of the clock, we can do it through sound. Because what is beautiful about sound in that discussion, is that the actual physical length of the sound waves are very much human scale)7.
In a 1993 piece called The Acoustic Line as the Crow Listens, you built an audio environment by capturing simultaneously eight sound sources, creating for the listener (or visitor) a sort of reproduction of the sound environment, impossible to grasp on the site where the sounds were captured. I think this work used a very unusual process at the time. I would say it is one of the founding examples of a sound environment that restores the third dimension8. You later coined this method “Acoustic Mapping Process.” Stemming from this process, Songs of Place allows henceforth the visitor to transfer the experience of sound in a familiar, domestic space. It always has to do with a translation of recorded events into a sort of container, a medium, but the gallery is not the only site of reception here…
Pitch change is a really interesting thing in the idea of using (sound) frequencies to measure distance or space. Because if you pitch change, what you are doing is either changing the scale of the environment in which the sound exists or you are changing the scale of the listener9. By slowing down the pitch, you expand the waveform, and by expanding the waveform, you represent more space (shrink the listener). In Acoustic Line, the space was shrunken: it’s a variation on pitch change. If space and time are equal, or manifested simultaneously then it is just a different take on pitch changing, but what it does is change the scale of the listener. And the second point of that particular piece was a fascination upon the realization of changing the scale of the listener. By changing the scale of the listener to being a scale that could actually traverse 64 feet, which was the scale of the model, faster than 5.5 seconds, and the 5.5 seconds are important because it is the speed of sound over a mile, is that the scale of the listener would be such that they could conceptually travel faster than the speed of sound, because the acoustic mile had been shrunken so greatly. But it’s really a pitch change, a pitch change effect. I remember that particular piece in the sense too as a visual artist and coming in to an exhibition space as being terribly intimidated by my own process, in the fact that I hung speakers, hand made custom speakers, on the ceiling. There was nothing else in this huge space. And so the architecture of that gallery space, and the architecture of my creation were as much implied as created. And I found that fascinating in the piece as well.
It seems that in this piece the sound produces a more direct experience of space, introducing referential data in a phenomenological way.
Yes sure, and again that piece was very much about the architecture of space, so it’s an architectural space, it’s a sculptural space and it’s an immersive space. The speakers are designed as a corridor, the speakers are very much beam like. They are exactly eight feet from the floor, and eight feet apart to create sixty-four feet, and they are eight feet across. The corridor is eight by eight by eight times eight (or eight by eight by sixty-four). This proportion has continued in my work and will continue I am sure. To take the next step on that in the creative element of it, and go back to the idea of the expanded universe being shrunken into a smaller universe are really issues of resolution. If you take, no matter how the object is recorded in the first step and reduce that image, its resolution becomes denser and denser. This is a strategy that I used from the beginning: increasing the density of the resolution by looking large and replaying small.
In another context you talked about the illusion of repetition in sound occurrences10. There is a similar phenomenon with the image: multiplied in one space, each occurrence is distinct and thus adds layers of meaning.
Well, it’s like an echo, and I actually believe not only in the illusion of repetition. When looking at our environment, we often have the impression of seeing the same day over and over again, but it’s never the same day. And that goes back to the idea of the observer changing the observed, but all of us are doing that. So there is an illusion of repetition. Also the idea of echo, which is another element like pitch change that I use because echo is a representation of space, reverberation and echo are representations of a representation space. Echoing a video image is no different than echoing a sound to me. And I do believe in the sense of relativity and in the sense of making the large small and recalibrating ourselves. Echo does not necessarily have to be related to the past, echo can also be projected (forward in time).
Part II — December 1, 2004
I’d like to discuss the notion of non-linearity in Songs of Place. Although the editing of sound material proceeds from fragmentation, there are sounds that exceptionally establish a sort of narrative continuity…
When you record something, it becomes linear because it is a recording. It plays out over time and space, but generally what I have always enjoyed about audio was the possibility of audio to be omnidirectional, or that it is omnidirectional. We experience sound all around us and continuously, so in a sense, when we choose to remember or comprehend sound occurrences that triggers some spark of interest in us, we are making edit decisions within ourselves from that omnidirectionnal architecture. That’s fundamental. From that realization, as an artist, the question is: How do you articulate an omnipresent space, or how to you articulate a construction such as that? And how do you have some control over it? So the idea of it is really to cut it up into sections, which is no different than the first perspective devices and the first grid type drawing machines11. Peter Greenaway’s film, The Draughtsman’s Contract, has an excellent demonstration of that process. When we start talking about the resolution of that omnipresent space and try to articulate that space, you have to divide it into sections that become pieces of a puzzle that can be reassembled, or expanded or compressed or any number of things. This is a non-linear process to me because even though the event happened in a linear fashion perhaps; the actual architecture of the cut-up is a non-linear representation of a linear activity.
Do you posit the principle of non-linearity at the same level as randomness?
I am not convinced random ever has existed. I can say that within the issue of resolution, resolution and comprehension. In reality, if we where able to actually comprehend all of the factors that motivate and influence all of the other factors simultaneously, is there then a pattern or randomness? I am not convinced that it is random. I think that there is a causality occurring that is programmable, which is programmed, and predictable. But it’s at a resolution of such magnitude, that there is really virtually no way to actually comprehend it as anything other than randomness. But there are certainly evidences in modern physics that have been described through the centuries as magic or as a cult kinds of occurrences, and instances of synchronicity that CG Jung talked about where answers arrive in separate continents at the same time. What is that about? I’m not talking about Butterfly Effect. I think in the division of the omnidirectional world, trying to break it into sections and analyze it, led me to concepts based on the idea of multiple simple machines. That complexity really comes from the multiplicity of simplicity. I don’t think it’s magical, I don’t think it’s strange. I think it’s an issue of resolution, resolution and reception. Resolution really is also about having the proper lens to look at a particular situation. Of course, if you are looking at things in very, very tight details or close details, you are likely excluding a lot of other information. In our time constraints, in our time space manifestations, or existence, I think reality is really about focal points, and theses focal points are non-linear, but they are not necessarily isolated from each other. I like a good story; there is nothing wrong with it. I am not against that model of representation, but I am very much interested in theses pockets of focus, in these pockets of perceptions, and how we arrive at theses, which is very much non-linear. But that’s not to say unconnected or random.
You seem open to the reading that the viewer can give of your work. I think that you work in a quite systematic way, like thirty years ago; an artist would talk about systems to repress metaphors. He would say: I am using systems because I don’t want to create images. Your work is quite complex, it is quite multi-layered, and you are also open to that kind of metaphorical reading, even a narrative reading.
To be honest as an artist, the most important path I have is my own process. If you follow the path of the logic I present here, the idea of the vibrational universe, the idea of measuring time / space with vibration, of event time through vibrations, and tying that to relativity theory where the mass of the object has a position in the relativity of it’s space so that the individual is very well defined, and has to be absolutely an individual. The make-up of which is not just a mass but how a mass travels through space. This affects everything they understand, every focal point that they ever had, because it’s slightly different from everyone else up to the milligram. It can’t help but be different. It’s the only way possible. In languages, in systems and in architecture, we set up a kind of consensual reality. I think reality is consensual. We are all consumers and projectors of reality simultaneously. So it’s flexible, there is no position that can possibly be hierarchical. So if people want to understand my work through metaphor… I think that is the way we understand our lives anyway. We are making analogies; we are making metaphorical assertions all the way through our lives as to how to relate to every piece of our lives. It’s very rare (as an adult) that we actually say: this is a new situation. I never experienced this before. That is a point of departure that I think is interesting: to be able to produce an artwork that, for a moment, can take a person to a place they never been. But it’s certainly going to create new metaphors, new analogies. That’s ok with me. We make it together, this thing we call reality.
Do you have an ideal viewer?
An ideal viewer?
Or an ideal listener… someone with the appropriate knowledge to understand the work according to the program you put into it?
For Songs of Place, you choose a site that you consider to be the centre of a city. The four or eight points where sound is recorded, which are also sites, stem from this initial choice. At the end, the sites selected through your system are often far from offering significant pictures of the city (at times, they are almost interchangeable from one city to another). It means therefore that the notion of authorship (one person making aesthetic decisions) is being challenged by the system you’re using.
This is a very contemporary question. For me, one of the great things of some of the electroacoustic composers or modern composers has been the issue of scoring, and so the artwork is the score. And what results from the score is another unique artwork of a particular moment in time and space. But it’s with the recognition that as closely as you can follow a score, even the most specific score, it can never be duplicated. And this is something that is a new awakening. The repeatability of something is essentially impossible. So then you go back to the issue of process. When I make up my rules, it’s basically a score.
So there is always some sort of choosing involved in this systematic method of producing occurrences. For example, the grid placement of video images is not based only on a graphic or æsthetic decision.
But it’s within the score’s framework. If my site says that I have to be standing in a tunnel, I am not going to get interesting sound, so I modify it. This is, as far as I’m concerned, my right as an individual (artist)… I do make choices to modify the rules as they go. I enjoy the process of making my rules, to be restrictive as possible and open as possible at the same time. I prefer to think of art as life, so I try to build pathways that are extensions of my own life as an artist. However, I don’t think it is possible to make art without intent. If you did not intend to make art from the beginning, you cannot call it art at the end, that’s my opinion. Yes any manifestation can be beautiful but it’s been a long time since beauty had anything to do with making art.
Is there a relationship between your definition of the art-life continuum and a certain conception of silence present in your work?
I think silence like sound is simply contextual. Issues of signal to noise for instance are like a weed in a garden. You could have the most beautiful orchid in a middle of a lawn, so is it a weed? It’s contextual; silence and sound are mechanisms to help us find some definitions, some resolution in the articulation of our reality. I think they are interchangeable. When I was studying visual arts, the first thing I was fascinated with was the idea of contour lines and combined with that, the idea of negative space. When you draw the lines of let’s say, this desk, there are two ways to do it. You can draw that line based off the desk itself: the object is the desk. Or you can draw it from the position of space related to the object. I always thought we have a tendency to feel that the object takes more value than the space. But they really are equal, they have equal place. So one strategy that I developed years ago was to emphasize the negative space of an object and not the object itself. You end up with a similar representation of the object, it’s just looking at it from the opposite side. And that is silence to me, that’s part of my definition of silence.
So it’s not about sound presence and absence?
No, not necessarily. It’s about binaries creating a middle point. The binaries create a middle point.
You talked about your involvement in æsthetic decisions… I’d like to return to the notion of authorship. John Cage used chance to trigger events that later became his source material. Supporters of conceptual art have pushed further this logic and consider that a system or machine will produce utterances regardless of the artist’s choices. In formulating rules that become your pieces’ structure12, do you position yourself in relation with these experiences? Or do you see yourself as an artist expressing himself, the artwork being an expression of your decisions.Yes.
An expression, for sure. Because it would never be the same again the next time I try to do it.
But there is no mythology in your work.
No, that’s not true.
The systems I develop are completely about my own mythology and history13.
The phenomenon of ubiquity, made possible by technology, is frequently discussed nowadays.
In my work, there is the idea of the omni and non-linear that perhaps could be defined as a network or a matrix. We could go back to the issue of the focal point and the focusing on multiple points simultaneously. I think we have the capacity to do that. But what people consider multitasking is for me just overworking ourselves and not going anywhere. When we are consciously mindful, and have for a moment, a flash or a dejà vu, I think we exist at two places at once; we have a perception of multiple focal points. I also think we can train ourselves to exists in multiple focal points. The reason that we don’t get to those multiple focal points is that we are too busy objectifying and building up our reality so that there is no escape from it. If you want to exist in multiplicity, you have to simplify the objects, take them down to the base core, so that a tool is a tool. Or you must get faster… faster processing, faster frequency — which brings us back to pitch change, relative time/space, and resolution.
A number of audio artists come from a musical or visual arts background, and get into the network of galleries and artist-run centres for lack of venues for this type of project.
The alternative art galleries responded to it (audio art), and saw it as a new expression of creativity. And having my background as a visual artist, it did make sense. So I could make a case reasonably well in the applications to follow that train of thought. But I’ve also got into performance art festivals by saying that the multi-channel sound work that I was presenting, was performative because the audience, while they listened, while they moved around the space, could make up the composition as they moved between speakers and this movement was performative. I’ve also been in many situations (with art galleries) where I have been totally rejected. The problem with a bar is that if you play quite subtle sounds, it doesn’t work. I’ve done concerts outside too, but even being outside is noisy, that’s a different kind of interaction, a different kind of relationship: the signal to noise ratio is very different. Art galleries seem to be reasonably quiet, they are probably the cleanest spaces for sound artists to present their works, without the filters of a lot of noise… unwanted noise. A lot of sound artists do enjoy that noise and want to incorporate it. And I’ve done that with pieces, having open microphones and reintroduce into the mix, the speaker output combined with the live sound space, as the piece is being built/performed14. So using the sound space of the sound to augment the sound of the sound space… And it gets in this big feedback loop and fold back situation which is a live measuring device of the space (and the audience) that I am performing in15. I think the issue is to modify or to use the right conceptual framework to best produce and present your work. And certainly, it’s been the visual arts that supported my career as an audio artist until such a time when audio art was sanctioned at arts grants level (in Canada in 1989), and later it came under the new media umbrella.
Your work seems self-generative. It stems from a conceptual matrix, yet its ways of manifesting and articulating concepts are always singular.
I can go back to an early lesson I had from a teacher at art s
This is the latest instalment in the continuing series In Profile, which looks at a cross-section of art being produced on the island and the people who make it.
Diversity is a prominent feature of Montréal’s current art scene. Previously dominated by the strong tradition of Quebec’s modernist painters, the realm of artmaking has expanded beyond what is coyly called “the dirty arts” (painting, drawing and sculpture) to include photo and mixed-media, web-based installation, performance, sound, even smell.
This fourth edition of the In Profile series, Sonic Boom, examines four artists who are working in what could be called a booming field in the art world: sound, also called audio art or sound installation. To some it is just noise, albeit with banks of computers, high-tech speakers and jumbles of tangled wires, and playing to esoteric-looking crowds at performances in barns or obscure festivals.
But sound work, unlike video or web-based work, draws on a long history dating from the early 20th century. Artists in movements like Dada and the Italian Futurists - one of whom, Luigi Russolo, wrote the seminal 1913 sound manifesto, The Art of Noises - made the observation that the sound landscape of the modern age is entirely new, marked with a technological urbanism: the clangs, yelps, squeals and groans of machines. The first noise performances by early sound artists were received in confused silence - one dissatisfied Futurist compared it to “showing the first steam engine to a herd of cows.”
But technologies - and the public - seem to have caught up to the concept. Desktop studios and trips to Radio Shack have increased the access to recording and editing. And as everyone knows, anything an artist can get his hands on is fair game. Montréal, in particular, has a strong reputation internationally. With yearly festivals like Mutek and Elektra, support from and access to such art centres as Quartier Ephemere, and ambitious installations like the Silophone, a disused grain silo in the Old Port that in 2000 was turned into a kind of musical instrument, sound in the city is booming.
With the visual getting most of the aesthetic coin in museums and galleries, it is easy to forget the other senses - or dismiss them as devoid of content serious enough for aesthetic investigation. Yet artists are increasingly exploring sound, smell and taste as vehicles for content.
During a stint as a bicycle courier in this city, I ran the usual range of adjustments to the haste, pace and danger of a job that is carried out in a panicky sensory jumble. One adjustment was particularly telling: since you can’t swivel your head all the time to look out for traffic, you put your head down, stare fixedly ahead and listen hard. Your eyes are for steering, but your ears are for navigation, and they become the predominant tool for self-preservation.
“We use (sound) like a radar - we think we know where we are with the space in front of our eyes, but if you ever have an ear problem, it’s amazing… blind people walk with a stick, tapping it. It’s not to feel out things, it’s setting up echoes.”
Steve Heimbecker is a thickset, methodical man in his 40s. He stares - as most sound artists necessarily do during interviews - into a computer screen, going through DVDs of his work. Heimbecker explores, among other things, the sculptural dimensions of sound. His work with what he calls “acoustic mapping” situates the observer in a multi-channel sound environment.
In The Acoustic Line as the Crow Listens, the artist plotted a mile through the landscape and recorded simultaneously at eight sites placed about 200 metres equidistant. For the resulting installation, speakers are placed together in a line that compresses the mile into 64 feet. The result is a time-warped stereo experience: environmental sounds that travel a mile, like a car horn, move and fade rapidly in a squished sonic environment, bending perception.
“So conceptually, if you walk really fast, you would be travelling faster than the speed of sound,” the artist says.
He fabricates most of his installations himself; his studio is a jumble of speaker boxes built to spec for his next show. His work travels widely to sound festivals and galleries in Europe and North America.
A Saskatchewan native recently transplanted to Montréal, Heimbecker is most known for his sound work with the Silophone and a 2003 installation titled Wind Array Cascade Machine, where a field of 64 wheat-like stalks of electronic sensors bent with the wind on the roof of the Ex-Centris building on St. Laurent Blvd. The data stream from the rooftop sensors was transmitted to galleries in Toronto and Europe, where other installations, called Pods, translated the data into rows of upright LED readouts on poles, reinterpreting the wind as a field of oscillating lights in the gallery.
“I realized that the wave patterns of a wheat field caused by the wind were exactly how the sine wave works… so it’s a metaphorically perfect thing.”
If music is, as American composer John Cage said, “organized sound”, then Heimbecker displays how sound, transcribed by technology, can be made into an aesthetic replication of experience: not music, but something altogether new. Heimbecker’s eyes light up at the elegant idea: “So the wind in Quebec was blowing in Toronto…”
“I don’t really work with data like Steve does. Steve is really more into programming, how data inputs and then outputs differently. It’s totally another way of working…”
Jean-Pierre Gauthier, preparing for his exhibition at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal in February, is distracted and intense, with a furrowed brow, constantly looking elsewhere. A maker of sound-producing kinetic installations, Gauthier starts up a piece that’s waiting to be shipped from his east-end studio: a piano with wires running from the keys to a swarm of more wires, switches and sensors stuffed into the seat.
The piece is activated by motion sensors. As the viewer moves, the piano twitches into action, plucked notes sputter here and there, initially startling me into thinking that I had stepped on something accidentally.
“There are three microprocessors. I program the sequence. (The computer) chooses randomly the note… Each sequence is tripped by motion sensors.”
The effect is unsettling and twitchy at first. As you move, the volume of notes gains mass, cascading into a nervous symphony.
“I like it to be random, so at one point I lose control of the result […] The composition gets free, like this one - I select the notes… but the rest is out of my control. To me, the 'order' of this is about trying to get the work free from my control.”
Gauthier, represented by the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, was the 2004 winner of the Sobey Art Award, a $50,000 award given to Canadian artists under 40. Gauthier’s noisy, kinetic installations have received lots of notice and justifiable acclaim.
Usually working with everyday objects like skis, mirrors or hammers, Gauthier fashions these into robotic instruments that sing:
“Basically the objects are quite insignificant, they’re quite normal - but the sound they can make is quite amazing,” he says. “(They’re) just amplified, no (added) effect. I use as much as possible the pure sound of the object, and (try) to find an object that has its own colour.”
In his 2002 installation Echotriste, Gauthier combined mirrors with dangling industrial coils that scored the mirrors’ surfaces to create ethereal sounds suggesting an eerie human chorus - home-made music that gives a nod to the Futurists themselves, who encouraged artists to create their own instruments.
“I loved electronics when I was a kid - I had a Radio Shack electronic kit. The work brought me to this. It was quite natural for me to do this.”
“Jean-Pierre (Gauthier) and (I) have the same background - we both did our master’s at UQAM - a real visual art background. When I think about Gauthier, he’s a craftsman: He builds stuff.”
Jean-Pierre Aube started as a photographer, but instead of visual images now captures sound.
“There’s not a big difference. […] I go around in the woods with my VLF receiver and bring something back with a technology device - the camera is a radio receiver for me (now).”
Aube is a tall, gregarious man who works out of his home in the north end. The interview is occasionally accented by the staccato wails of his new baby in the other room. Leaning back on a thrift-store couch, we watch a video projection of a performance piece he did at the Quartier Ephemere this past summer. A huge mass of giant speakers sits in the middle of a room. Titled Save the Waves, the system - built out of plywood, old computers and scrap material - showed that he is not averse to building stuff, either.
“A critic wrote that the exhibition isn’t really about the object, it was more about the sound - which surprised me a little bit because those speakers weighed 3,000 pounds…”
Aube often works with a VLF (very low frequency) receiver that he makes himself:
“It’s basically (like) a hula hoop with 300 feet of cable, […] a simple radio receiver that allows you to grab all natural electromagnetic phenomena.”
Very low frequency was inadvertently discovered in the 1800s when it became apparent that telegraph lines picked up signals from atmospheric phenomena like the aurora borealis. VLF receivers also pick up what Aube considers to be the frequency of modernity: “60 hertz is the soundtrack of domestic life, because 60 hertz is everywhere. Your fridge hums at 60 hertz.”
Save the Waves is a reflection on Aube’s difficulty with getting far enough away from the interference of 60hz electrical lines to record the aurora himself. In the piece, a series of receivers pick up all electromagnetic signals in and around the building, while a performer runs a hand-held receiver over various appliances: a fluorescent light, a sound board, the computers themselves. The effect is an eerie accidental modulation coming from the giant speakers, like a mass of chanting Buddhist monks, all produced by our own electromagnetic pollution.
Aube, a darling of the electronic festival circuit, has shown his work in such far-flung places as Latvia, France, the Philippines and Germany. Sound art, like a lot of technology-based work, seems to have more of a receptive audience outside North America:
“Let me put it this way: (on this continent) I’ve never shown my work outside of Quebec, but I’ve shown 20 times in Europe in the past few years.” He adds: “Montréal has a big scene. […] Mutek - it’s huge and known all around the world.”
“Sound is big nowadays.”
Christof Migone agrees. But while the audience is growing for such work, he, like a lot of others, finds that more traditional museums and galleries are taking time to adjust to the medium: “Some galleries are starting (to show more sound work) […] but it’s also not an ideal space… they’ve done shows, but the result is a cacophony - they just don’t take into account that it’s a radically different medium.”
Migone - tall, slight, and reticent - sits at the kitchen table in his modest Little Italy apartment. He displays a more multidisciplinary bent in his work, but sound is his base: After starting in radio at CKUT in the 1990s with his show Danger in Paradise, he pushed the envelope of experimentation with recording and broadcasting, and has written extensively on the subject of audio art.
“I think sound is something I keep returning to, I guess because I have a certain level of skill. Once I get an idea it often translates into sound, because I guess I can sort of see how it can materialize.”
In his work Crackers, Migone solicited volunteer performers through radio and print ads, seeking individuals who were willing to make cracking sounds with various parts of their bodies. Some were more than willing, cracking necks, wrists, toes and jaws - and providing Migone with enough recording material for years. Crackers started as a sound installation in 1998, but was redone in performances and installations in Paris, Geneva and Los Angeles and as recently as this fall in Montréal at UQAM’s gallery.
One of the recordings was a string of cracks from various parts of the body, edited closely together, bristling and alive with varying notes and textures: the music of wet popcorn, and strangely compelling to listen to.
“When presented in artists’ talks or things like that, people have a dual reaction. Some kind of wince, and other people start cracking,” he says. “What interests me is also the 'uncontrollable-ness' of that action. When you crack, it’s a habit, it’s a compulsion.”
Some of his other work displays a penchant for recording obsessive-compulsive behaviours and bodily functions - like P, where the artist recorded 1,000 moments of urination while saying “P”.
“Crackers really helped me focus, and I did a fart record afterwards which kind of applied the same kind of restrictions and focus.”
Creating with a blend of old-fashioned microphone recording and software editing, Migone keeps the technology simple to focus on the product and the idea.
“I try to downplay sound, in a sense, because (the work) gets pigeonholed. Most of the time it’s not necessarily about the medium. I’m much more interested in the initial idea.”
Steve Heimbecker agrees: “I think a lot of sound artists are really involved in the process as much or more than the outcome. […] Many of the ideas themselves are based on expanding technologies, (and) sometimes result in a piece that’s interesting, sometimes not. […] The big discussion now is, 'What is the content?', because the technology’s kind of flatlined - everything you can do with it has been imagined.”
But with the plethora of noise in our world, and since part of the artist’s job description is to absorb and reflect human experience, the genre is constantly brushing up against the definition of music.
“Cage thought everything was music”, Migone says. “There’s no such thing as silence - and he incorporated everything into music. And that’s dangerous for sound art, because how does it carve out its own territory outside of (music)?”
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