JOHN DUNCAN

Interview by Boris Wlassoff for revue & corrigée (numéro 51, Mars 2002)
Translations by Thierry Bokhobza
December 2001 to January 2002 (Scrutto di San Leonardo, Italy / Stockholm, Sweden)



As time goes on, in spite of the multiplicity of your work and of the means you use, sound seems to become the most important. Does it have a particular status in your work?

Yes. Sound tends to develop outside of any concept or framework I try to impose on it, more so than my visual work for some reason. Sound is nearly always seductive, a quality I like very much.

Close to the fantastic LAFMS, you also collaborated with COUM's Cosey Fanni-Tutti in "KOKKA" and with A. McKenzie in "CONTACT". Can you tell us about those historical collaborations and in general about the interest you have in working with other musicians?

In general I prefer working with people who have an idea of what they want from their work, who have a sense of what they want and don't want to hear, aren't restricted by formal musical training to approach what sound is and play with it. Many don't consider themselves musicians.

KOKKA was made on a two-track open reel tape recorder, sent through the mail. These were some of the first shortwave recordings I ever made, recorded on one channel. Then I sent the open reel tape to Cosey and Chris to record their part on the other channel. They sent the tape back to me just before I left for Tokyo, and the record was released in Japan.

To record CONTACT, Andrew and I drove to caves in Belgium and the NOS shortwave transmission tower complex in the Netherlands to make DAT field recordings. At these sites we included a series of shortwave sources I'd made, one of us recording the ambient audio while the other played the sources back over a boom box, holding it over our heads and walking in a circular motion toward or away from the microphone. Back home we added ambient recordings of the machines in his studio and mine. Then Andrew made a series of Alvin Lucier-style 'bounce' recordings (recording, recording the playback, recording the recording of the playback, etc.) from this material.

The nature of sound is at the same time immediate, sensorial and abstract. It makes any significations aleatory. Now, psychoacoustics tries a phenomenological approach to sound, which infirms these ideas. Does this interest you and influence your work?

To the extent that we're using the same tools and techniques, yes I think it's interesting. Our differences start with the fact that for several people working with psychoacoustics and physical acoustics in rooms, the phenomenological approach is an end in itself. My experiences have made clear that this is only a beginning, and a seriously reduced one, so I'm more interested in what happens in the listener's head when these techniques are put to use, and how I can develop that.

Here, I'm thinking about "CEREMONY" and "INCOMING", in which the cry of a pig precedes the noise of a football stadium, or about the presence of enjoyment rattling in "KLAAR". All those elements produce [an emotional] sense. Is that your intention?

Absolutely.

In the universal will to associate sound to life's ritual, we could find trance and daily activities like hunting or gathering: from sound would be born languages and acts. Nowadays in the Occidental world, music is everywhere in the background of poor rituals like consuming and waiting. The hearer becomes obedient and passive. Are you sensitive about the destination of your music and about the general status of music in the Occident nowadays?

It's true that many of the sacred rituals involving sound, and that special attention that the listener is taught to be prepared to give to them, have been lost in our lives; just as alot of the sacred itself has been lost -- or at least seems to have been lost. And it's true that the media tend to render all music superficial and trivial, persuading listeners to become cynical, to snicker at ideas like sacredness and beauty. Then sooner or later that jadedness itself gets boring, and encourages a search for experiences that contact something profound in us.

Fortunately this hunger makes it possible to find and hear and be inspired by just about any form of recorded sound. A variety of music that just a few generations ago was known only to hardcore ethnomusicologists -- if it was considered 'music' at all -- is now available to anyone with a listenable copy and a machine to play it on. Anyone can listen to and compare ideas in sound that span years, decades, or centuries -- a check of solo a capella vocal works could lead to Carlo Gesualdo, to Nico, to Keiji Haino, to Kurt Schwitters' "Ur Sonata", to William Burroughs' open reel tape experiments, to the Shaggs, to Florence Foster Jenkins, to Albanian ceremonial songs, to Algerian fishing chants, to Inuit throat singing, etc., etc.

This access is also encouraging people to produce their own sound as well as listen, to make their own recordings, to look for themselves into what sound is, what music is -- just one of many things that make our present time an exciting moment to be alive. Added to this availability is that so many of us are dependent on a machine for hearing it, to listen back to what we've made. We often give value the sound we make only if it can be recorded and played for others, which again shows how essential the listener has become as an active participant in all kinds of music.

In my case, art or 'creative experiences' (art is easier to spell) are basically about getting in contact with something within myself and examining it. My performances and events include direct involvement with other people, mainly with, sometimes without their knowledge. The installations are set up for visitors to be alone inside them, to have private moments in a specifically charged atmosphere. Audio work is composed by selecting and combining sources according to the psychological effects they generate, rather than for how they work 'as music'. All of it is made to encourage participants to give their full attention, to concentrate on the experience if they're prepared to do that. Beyond that, the work is on its own, to be accepted for what it is. How it's accepted and interpreted is for the participants to decide for themselves, and is very useful: partly for seeing how accurately the work conveys to others what it's conveyed to me, partly for hearing responses to it that I could never have imagined.

The audio sources I normally work with are chosen for their elusiveness, for a quality that avoids the immediately recognizable tone of a conventional instrument, and the memory associations that usually go along with it. Shortwave. Radio static. Data files. The exceptions to this are field recordings and human voice, because they're both so rich and complex. A source I'm working with often right now is directing children's voices, whispering, playing, screaming, anywhere from solo voices to a 30-voice children's choir. Another recent exception has been a series of onstage performances directing Zeitkratzer, an ensemble of 10 musicians playing orchestral instruments in very untraditional ways, to get sounds from them that are different from the sounds those instruments normally produce.

Another thing I'm looking into is the arena of time in an audio experience, the listener's expectation of music as a 'concert', with a start, buildup and finish. The HALL of WORDS, THE FLOCKING (with the 30-voice children's choir) and ACCESS DENIED installations are all examples of an audio-only environment that keeps the sense of drama of a concert yet constantly changes, that you can walk into, through, out of and back into again, or stay as long as you like (except for ACCESS DENIED, where the listener is deliberately locked out of the audio space), and will always hear something different. It works as music does, and leaves you free to decide how long to listen, to define the experience as you like.

Whether or not any of this will ever be used to soothe travelers, sell tampons or tranquilize shoppers in a supermarket is anyone's guess.

I remark that lots of your works are punctuated by concrete and sexual sounds but corroded, gnawed by the tide of frequencies. This cohabitation for instance of incredible rattles all along this piece I'm very fond of, "MOVE FORWARD", and of more and more excited shortwave creates a dialectic tension, an effect of shock between two far worlds. Can you make your intentions clear for us?

MOVE FORWARD was intended to be a kind of mirror. It starts with the soundtrack playing in total darkness. The rattles come from recordings of shortwave signals, specific frequencies transmitted by Soviet Russian stations that are intended to psychologically disorient listeners. The film starts after about ten minutes, a collage of diagrams detailing a nuclear explosion animated from science journals, fast cutups of mainstream advertising, softcore and hardcore pornography, all of which are intended as a reflection of our social situation, projected onto a large paper screen.

The last several minutes come from shortwave broadcasts and recorded speeches from Jonestown, Guyana: their last radio communication, Jim Jones' voice over the assembly hall microphone. While these were heard, I set the projection screen on fire and let it burn, then sprayed the burning paper scraps into the audience with a fire extinguisher.

Your recent works seem to be free of any exterior identifiable references. Is there a deliberate willingness to do so?

Absolutely. The idea is to get away from memory and emotional references inherent in the sound of traditional instruments (the melancholy quality of a violin, for example) and focus on sounds, on combinations of frequencies that tap our emotions without a point of reference we can easily use to dismiss their effects.

For instance, "TAP INTERNAL" is very abstract, purified, with holes of very strong violence and other parts at the threshold of our perception; "THE CRACKLING" evokes an atom, an invisible, very high energy, the energy of death and of life! In a general way, the sound of these disks seems to suggest that a spectral substitute of sound as a "body' happened, that life regeneration is possible in its radiant material. Do you agree?

It's part of what I was hoping for, and was definitely part of the process of making those pieces.

Technically, how do you elaborate your music? You seem to use a lot of oscillators in your recent works: now oscillators are the key of the research on determinist phenomena in the chaotic process. What is your intimate relationship with this material reality of the sounds?

So far, I've never used an oscillator. TAP INTERNAL and PALACE of MIND are made mainly from computer data files, translating documents and programs into audio files and processing them until the sound they have in playback creates certain acoustic or psychological effects, with the idea of encouraging a sense of introspection. At least that's how they work on me. Again, the emphasis is on the listener, not the soundmaking process itself.

The sumptuous title of your last disk with Giuliana Stefani "PALACE of MIND" is an invitation to consider the mind as a spot out of time, out of sufferance (here I also have in mind a Coil slogan, "Electricity has made angels of us all."), which is what I perceive in the curative aspect of your works, an invitation to go through the flames in order to scour yourself off useless?

I'm not sure what you mean by scour yourself off useless. If you mean 'get rid of useless things', then you're correct and thank you for noticing that. Aside from its function as music, PALACE of MIND is made to be a kind of tool, an attempt to seduce the listener to look inside him- or herself.

Do you still practice visual arts and if so, in which directions? Could you also evoke some of your recent or ancient important works that we haven't mentioned, knowing that as you are quite rare in France...

Visual work I did in LA included several videotapes, installations including THE BLACK ROOM and a maze, called DESERT LANDMARK, that I planted in the Mojave Desert with Joshua tree seeds.

In Japan, I made collages and videos that were shown in Tokyo galleries and Yokohama City Museum. I guest-edited a magazine called 'Performance of War' with chief editor Sakevi, where we interviewed the Tokyo representative of the PLO, Tokyo's Chief Medical Examiner, inmates from Tokyo Seishin Byouin (the main mental hospital) on the subject of death and introduced the work of Joe Potts and Paul McCarthy (his first exposure in Japan). I made several videotapes and films, including MOVE FORWARD mentioned earlier. I directed, scripted, acted in and composed soundtracks for a series of commercially produced and distributed adult videos, and operated TVC 1, a series of pirate television broadcasts from transmission equipment that I built.

In Amsterdam, I made films that were broadcast over Rabotnik TV in Amsterdam and Moscow State Television in Russia. The KICK event, a performance based on a breath exercise used in Reichian therapy, was performed in Europe, Japan, Scandinavia and the US.

Where do you draw the energy to accomplish your task?

From the work itself, the excitement of being part of the process.


PREVIOUS PAGE REVIEW INDEX MAIN