By Spencer Cawein Pate
Devin DiSanto and Nick Hoffman’s Three Exercises–released by one of my very favorite record labels, Erstwhile–is one of the most beguiling albums I’ve listened to in 2015. An auditory trace or palimpsest of an artistic happening (involving ping pong balls, cardboard boxes, duct tape, basketballs, and children’s board games, processed by stochastic electronics and obliquely commented on by spectators) that was recorded in an elementary school gymnasium, Three Exercises is both strikingly innovative in the field of electroacoustic music and skewed and oddly endearing as a portrait of artistic collaboration and performance. I decided to interview Devin and Nick to learn more about how they crafted this totally unique album.
SCP: First of all, I was wondering why you chose to record this album in a school gym as opposed to any other kind of public space. Was it merely out of necessity / availability, or was there a deeper resonance there? I ask because I found parts of the album to have a nostalgic cast to them; something about the sounds and acoustics immediately evoked the experience of being a child in elementary school, through a Proustian kind of involuntary memory.
NH: A large, resonant space that is usually associated with bad acoustics–it was Devin’s suggestion, and I accepted the challenge.
DD: I wanted to record in a distinct space that would work well thematically with the different projects, testing, and games that we would be doing. I normally don’t like recording in really reverberant spaces, but it seemed like a worthwhile challenge to make it work.
SCP: What were the circumstances that led to you two collaborating? How easy or difficult was it to meld your different sensibilities? Erstwhile’s Jon Abbey is known for selecting and introducing pairs of musicians in order to produce novel duo improv situations, but I wasn’t sure if either of you had met or worked together before.
NH: We had never met or worked together before; it was Jon’s idea. Fortunately, we had a lot of time beforehand to talk about it and plan things out, so when we actually met it wasn’t difficult to start working. I think we’re both somewhat resistant to free improvisation, so it was necessary to have some kind of plan ahead of time.
DD: I’d been aware of Nick’s music and his label, Pilgrim Talk, for quite a while. He’s released, and been a part of several interesting conceptually based recordings that I really like (Noise without Tears, Cockroach Boy). I figured he would be a good person to work with and would be open to trying new things.
SCP: Was the Fluxus art movement, with its emphasis on indeterminacy, spontaneity, performativity, participation, and DIY ethics / aesthetics (including the use of very mundane and banal materials), an influence on how you conceived of this recording, or on your work in general? In particular, I found myself thinking of Allan Kaprow’s writings on “concrete art” and descriptions I’ve read of his “happenings.”
NH: I first encountered Fluxus at an impressionable age, so I’ve probably internalized some of those ideals (and yes, of course, preposterous DIY ethics that can only be doomed to failure). Even if some of it looks silly now, there’s something really endearing and sweet about the whole thing. I’m still a big fan of Yoko Ono; her book, Grapefruit, is a personal favorite. Many of the qualities you mention are present on Three Exercises.
DD: Fluxus definitely had an impact on me at a certain point, especially works by Giuseppe Chiari (La Strada) and Mieko Shiomi (Spacial Poem No.7). Now it is more of a general influence among others in the area of experimental music / interdisciplinary art. It wasn’t really a direct influence on the making of the recording or something that Nick and I discussed while making it. For me, the use of banal / everyday materials and actions doesn’t come from any specific reference or influence, as it is a fairly common theme running through different films, music and art that I’m interested in. For performances and recordings I often gravitate toward using office supplies, and shipping, industrial and packing materials both for the visual and sonic qualities as well as the functional aspects. I do enjoy Kaprow’s writings though, especially the two Education of the Un-Artist pieces. That spirit has probably rubbed off quite a bit.
SCP: I’m interested in whether you were inspired by some of the recent developments in improvised music, such as the noisy, chaotic systems of the South Korean improv scene or perhaps the very quiet performances and environmental sounds of the Wandelweiser group. Was this the case?
NH: There is a lot of great music coming out of Seoul, and it’s probably fair to say that the musicians involved with the Balloon & Needle and Manual labels influenced me. Devin and I both performed at Dotolim this year, and the scene there is still improbably vibrant and interesting. Wandelweiser is, I think, the opposite of what I’m doing. If the Wandelweiser composers take silence as a starting point, I take noise as a starting point.
DD: I studied with Michael Pisaro when I briefly attended CalArts so that certainly helped shape the way I approach making sound. I enjoy the music from both of these areas, but the primary influence for me, and common link between the Wandelweiser composers and the musicians in Seoul, is the approach, or attitude toward recording associated with them (e.g., Becoming Typewriter, Un Lieu Pour Être Deux). Allowing a space, and the events that take place within / around it to be a presence that is as significant as the performers in the room and the actions they are carrying out, is an intriguing idea, and one that I’ve tried to explore further. What I’m interested in most in relation to this idea is the sound of a situation, and presenting events that occur within the realm of possibility that helps define and characterize that space. The theme and context of the performance, and the different materials involved hopefully frames and provides a character to this sense of potential. Treating sound in a way that reflects this idea is important to me, and was something that I was sensitive to when putting the recording together.
SCP: I also thought that Three Exercises made for an interesting companion piece to some other recent releases on Erstwhile: Graham Lambkin and Keith Rowe’s Making A (not to mention Lambkin’s trilogy in collaboration with Jason Lescalleet) and Eric La Casa and Taku Unami’s Parazoan Mapping, all of which deal with the auditory traces of everyday events and objects. Three Exercises comes packaged with photos hinting at the processes of its production, and of course the album comments on its own creation through the observations of your chosen interlocutors. But the actual “games” you’re playing remain somewhat opaque. At times I felt baffled and wished I could watch a video of what was going on, but ultimately I’m grateful that the focus was placed on the sounds rather than their sources. Did you want to force the listener to use his or her imagination by leaving so many elements mysterious and anonymous, or would you care to elaborate on your methods?
NH: Prior to recording, we talked a lot about transparency. A lot of so-called experimental music cloaks itself in this kind of phony mysticism or ends up being crushed by its own sense of preciousness. We really wanted to avoid that and just say, “here’s what we’re doing.” So, the observers / writers are there telling the listener exactly what’s going on–it’s essentially a real-time commentary on the music. It was pretty awkward while it was happening–two people taking notes into tape recorders, just sitting there watching us–but their recordings ended up sounding great. Regarding methods: my role on this album is similar to that of an accompanist. You could compare it to the role of an organist during a church service.
DD: I wanted to make a recording that would allow someone to listen to it in multiple ways or from different perspectives, as though it were a music composition, a field recording, a news broadcast, or a mixture of these and maybe more. I wanted to find a balance between a listening experience that is indexical, or oriented around cause and effect in terms of understanding a sound as the result of a specific action with a visual reference, and one that results from the entirety of a sonic environment with its sound-transmitting and modifying elements. I think if a listener is made aware of the conditions of the event taking place, the objects and materials involved, and the space in which they are being used, then deciphering what is occurring hopefully becomes secondary or equal to listening solely to the sonic elements.
SCP: Moreover, are the rules or tasks you set up significant in and of themselves, or are they merely means to an end? In other words, does the resulting album (with its post-production) have primacy as an objet d’art over the absent center of its live, sensory performance, or is it merely an audio vérité document of the multimedia ritual “happening,” which now belongs to the past and is consigned only to the memory of its participants?
NH: It is not a document in any meaningful sense of the word. Although no effects were added and the post-production work is relatively minimal, what you hear on the album is radically different from what happened in the space. From the outset, I wanted it to be very clear that we were creating an audio recording (that would ultimately end up on a CD), and that essentially we would be creating acousmatic music. To answer your first question: the sound is the only thing that matters to me.
DD: For me the tasks / rules and the functions they serve are significant because they were used to structure the recording and provide a context for the sounds being created. The incidental sounds of these activities are also the types of sounds that interest me the most. I think it’s possible for a fairly dedicated listener to piece together the different activities that took place, though I really don’t think it’s necessary. I read a review recently that put it together pretty closely. Overall I agree with Nick. The end result is not documentation of what took place. It is a sound recording that is a reduced and reassembled version and is something entirely different.
SCP: The album contains some very surprising shifts in volume dynamics and scale. How were the sounds you generated modified and recorded in real time, as the liner notes refer to “stochastic electronics”?
NH: Most of my sounds were synthesized in real-time by a computer–in general I avoid using pre-recorded samples. A lot of the electronic sounds you hear are being generated by stochastic oscillators which were programmed in accordance with Iannis Xenakis’ concept of dynamic stochastic synthesis. In short, this means that the output is not completely predictable, but based instead on various mathematical probabilities. The computer was connected to a PA system in the gym with the output played back at high volume. This had the effect of “warming up” the computer tones. Certain other sounds are reacting–via amplitude tracking–to acoustic sounds within the gym itself. It was kind of a nightmare setting it up.
SCP: Do you find that there are political dimensions to your practice of collaboration and participation in improvisation? It seems that there is a radical, egalitarian democracy inherent in how you make and treat sounds as well–they are set free to speak for themselves. It’s very punk, in a way.
NH: That might be an illusion. I’m not shy about eliminating sounds I don’t like (and there are many!). Again, the events were planned out pretty carefully, so yes sounds were allowed to occur more or less naturally, but only within the parameters we had determined in advance. In addition, there are many edits on Three Exercises. I guess there will always be politics in a collaborative situation. A duo is perfect in that it implies a 50/50 balance.
DD: I’m not much of an improviser so I don’t have much insight into that dynamic. Nick has much more experience in that area. In terms of our collaboration, Nick is a really flexible musician and was great to work with. We were able to talk quite a bit and exchange / refine ideas before we met to make the recording.
SCP: Lastly, Three Exercises is so refreshing for its humor, playfulness, and lack of pretension; it confuses the categories of composer and performer, professional and amateur, field recording and composition, sound and noise. What was the subjective experience of making it like?
NH: It was fun. A lot of recording sessions feel rushed for various reasons: someone is only in town for the afternoon, the studio is expensive, people want to get drunk, etc. This wasn’t like that at all. We had two full days in the gym so we were able to try different things out, make adjustments, and then just record until we got it right. It felt really luxurious.
DD: It was a great experience. I had fun playing basketball when we weren’t recording.