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Interview for Revue et Corrigee (France) May 1999

R&C: Your musical orientation seems inscribed in the debate of sound ecology versus electronic music. How could we give a formal account of the evolution of today's sound landscape and acoustic situation? How do you perceive the evolution (expansion?) of the sonic phenomenon within the urban, social and economical space (i.e. music reduced to its "useful" role)? Schematically two kinds of aesthetical approaches can be found in your work. Those approaches pick up or at least extend Schaeffer's and Pousseur's theories from the 50's and the 60's, and they don't merge together but develop in parallel: concrete music and electronic music, like two ways of attempting to capture the contemporary sound landscape. Is you problematical approach of these two musical genres the same?

Francisco López: I don't see such a difference between two "genres" in my work with sound. It is almost exclusively based on recordings of sound environments, which already implies an electronic process, and my decisions on whether or not to further process this sound material are not stylistic or procedural, but rather based on the properties of the sound matter by itself. When the focus is this, both the origin and the way sounds are treated are irrelevant and even misleading. My preference for environmental sounds over instrument-generated ones is fully Schaefferian, in the sense that it is based on a personal taste for the qualities of these sounds as "objects" (or better, as "matter"), but not on their origin per se. At the same time, this approach is necessarily non-Schaferian (from Murray Schafer, the founder of Acoustic Ecology), since I'm not concerned at all with the documentative / representational properties of sounds, but precisely with avoiding these.
The usefulness of music (or art in general) is a classical question. I don't think the current situation is essentially different from that in the past, since music has always suffered from diverse forms of pragmatism, utilitarism or dependence (from entertainment to adornment or ceremonial functions).

R&C: For a long time, your work has been associated with the so-called "industrial" music scene, mainly because of your collaboration with RRR. Now that your music appears like a provocative posture, an a-critical fascination for the ambient sonic opression -the opression of machines- what is your analysis of this music and its discourse? What do you think of the political leanings of bands like Throbbing Gristle or P16D4?

Francisco López: The term "industrial" music (in the sense of the early 80s underground scene, not the current one) is more aesthetically than politically or philosophically laden (both soundwise and visually). That is why people like Throbbing Gristle, P16D4, Hunting Lodge or Maurizio Bianchi -with quite diverse philosophical aims, attitudes and backgrounds- were all part of the industrial scene. One of my recent works, Belle Confusion 969, has been created starting from recordings of forests, yet it sounds pretty "industrial".
Industrial music has produced loads of highly appealing and interesting soundworks. In this sense, I can feel comfortable if sometimes pigeonholed as "industrial", but I'm not concerned at all with any extra-musical discourse. In the industrial culture, this was more related to an aesthetic of violence (images and references to genocide, murders, etc.) than to machines. The sex and violence discourse of Whitehouse, for example (so "catchy" for many people), is absolutely uninteresting for me, whereas I always have found their soundwork extremely appealing (and a true overlooked landmark in the experimental underground).
I don't see machines as opressive. Many of them produce beautiful sounds and a lot of true industrial "droney" sound environments are really fascinating. My work, however, is not concerned with making any judgements other than the purely sonic. And in this sense, I like machines as much as I like frogs.

R&C: Attali has established a link between noise as used by industrial groups (and techno as well), speaking of a sonic imperialism, that immerges the listeners' bodies in a sonic extremity until they're slaves to the bpm. How do you analyze this?

Francisco López: I do a lot of immersion in non-bpm's sonic extremities myself, and I'm quite happy being a slave of this. If this is sonic imperialism, I'm the emperor of myself. Yet an overwhelming sound pressure is not the only (and probably not the best) way to attain this. There is also the possibility of an immersive experience through a strengthening / enhancement of our listening capabilities; and very quiet music is indeed a sonic extremity, too. The problem here is to believe that the extremity (or, more generally, the strength, the power) of sound is outside us, for it is inside us. This widespread misconception is clearly seen in the tendency to rely upon technical means, instead of upon perceptional / situational means.

R&C: For Pascal Quignard, extreme radicality today would lie in silence. It is true that when listening to Bernhard Guenter or your "Warszawa Restaurant", the listener is confronted with a radical absence.

Francisco López: Not at all. We are essentially confronted with perceptual awareness, nuances, a shifting of the sense of time and space, detail, confusion, richness of attention, and, above all, ourselves. Both the "composer" and the "listener" are equally naked in this territory, which I find sublime. This is not radicality, but necessity.

R&C: Listening to your recordings, in particular to "Belle Confusion 966" or "Warszawa Restaurant", questions the very idea of the musical event. What we have here sonic surrounding interferes violently with your music? Is it a reflection about technique? How are we supposed to understand this permeability to external sounds? Why do you work at the border of the audible, therefore risking to end up with powerless, fragile sounds?

Francisco López: Imagine you are in a forest at night, watching the mysterious blurred figure of a bird in the distance with a very subtle moonlight. A person comes by and offers a night-vision device to better see it. Then the questions arise: What do you win and what do you lose if you do that? Why should you avoid the darkness? Why pursue a more defined image and a possible identification of the bird? Was the bird a powerless, fragile entity in the darkness?
What we are risking here is to dissipate the essence, the strength, the possibilities of sounds in a sea of pragmatical simplicity. The permeability to external sounds is not a physical problem, but a perceptual one. What is more important: it is also present when we think we are hearing clearly.

R&C: You repeatedly refer to Russolo's "Art of Noises" ("L'Art des Bruits"). That theoretical text regards sound as a material separated from any cultural criteria and references, therefore it is an historically important text. But isn't considering this moment of history as an unsurpassable statement on the material called "noise" leading you into a blind alley? That is, an inability to re-think noise starting with todays's situation of prevalence of sound?

Francisco López: I think Russolo's manifesto was very closely connected to the cultural and referential key ideas of Futurism. They (also Marinetti) actually re-tought noise and music in what they foresaw as a situation of prevalence of sound at the beginning of the century. The historical value I see in the "Art of Noises" comes from Russolo's ability and sensibility to give welcome to all sounds from the world into an expanded concept of music, at a time when classical orchestras and concert halls were, both officially and non-offically, the definition of music ("those hospitals for anemic sounds"). Although he was obviously marked by the taste of machines, to historically qualify Russolo simply as the inventor of the famous "intonarumori" is a big mistake. In the quest to "conquer the infinite variety of sound-noises", besides machine sounds, he also speak in his manifesto about thunder, wind, waterfalls, rivers... and the brilliant "wide, solemn, and white breathing of a city at night". He was trapped, however, in the instrumental paradigm of his time; his visionary ideas of ideally combining sounds from trains, motors, carriages and screaming crowds were poorly reduced to the creation of the orchestra of "intonarumori" (and the achievements of Balilla Pratella as the official Futurist composer were even poorer). I have often wondered why the Futurists didn't make use of the devices to capture sounds which existed at their time. In this sense, and also in the context of the discussion on technology as a driver of human conceptions, I find very interesting to think that it took about 50 years from the invention of such devices to develop the idea of "musique concrète", which is Schaeffer's, and not Edison's, merit.
I see more alleys in what is commonly called "music" than in "noise". As I see it, the work of a myriad of "noise" artists over the whole century has opened several new expanding and ever-evolving worlds. This is now specially evident in the "underground" scene, but not so in the academic one, once again trapped in its classical paradigms and almost completely blind with respect to the whole lot of things that are happening outside it.

R&C: This takes us back to your critical view of John Cage and his conception of silence and the concept of non-intentionality. You say that his understanding of the sonic phenomenon as a musical instant consists in reducing sound to its mere physical quality. Could you develop this idea, including the position of the composer in relation to the sound object? Schafer is close as he considers the world as a huge musical piece. The musician becomes the instrument of the world, at best its auditive witness. Which takes us back to the dominant discourse of the Techno scene, the DJ's position as carrier of the sonic flow. What is your opinion on this scene and its aesthetical and political stakes?

Francisco López: There's a messianic understanding of the figure of John Cage, especially in North America. It is my belief that his influence has been -and indeed still is- heavily pernicious for music and that Cagean philosophy, in its essence, is an exacerbated version of a classical paradigm in traditional Western music. Every struggle in Cagean philosphy is centered (or arises from) the procedures in music creation, no matter how radical or how anti-creative the proposition made seems to be. The apparently radical confrontation with traditional compositional concerns is a devious way of being trapped once again in the old pitfall of proceduralism and craftmanship as reference points for the understanding of music. Thus, the classical paradigm on the relevance of compositional techniques is not only kept well present but further elevated to a category of definitory idea in music (something not new but perhaps exaggerated in a peculiar way). In this sense, a strict formalist / structuralist view of music is not essentially different from the Cagean one; both share in a very intimate way the methodical conception of the musical world. While they can be fiercely fighting for a different system of values, this system relates to the same thing. This is an historically misleading distraction for music. It distracts the attention of music practicioners (creators, perceivers or whatever) from the actual music to the way it has been made. The procedure becomes a value in itself, for its own sake. The effects of this distraction are very patent and widespread: in addition to the classical additives of, say, virtuosism and elegent spectacle, now we have additives of new procedural worship (evidently, not only as a consequence of Cagean though), and both are not essentially different in their effect on music. Cagean anti-compositional, anti-traditionalist propositions convert the procedure in the goal of music as much as traditional solfa, and distract the attention from essential qualities of music as much as traditional schools of music. I believe that Cage "revolution", instead of "freeding music from taste and traditions", re-restricted it again to the fences of the same old Western paradigm of formalism and proceduralism.
Concerning the "carriers of sonic flow" you mention, there's a main difference between Schafer and the DJ scene. While the former considers sound recordings as a devious way of listening to the world, separating the sounds from its sources into a "schizophonia", the latter are precisely working with this, since they are carriers of the recorded sonic flow. In different ways, the creations of both, however, follow traditional conceptions of music. In recent years, most adventurous DJs have started to progressively introduce non-rhythmic, non-melodic sonic components in their sets, increasing the proportion of these at a pace that can be followed by the audience, and labelling the results with funny fancy names such as "illbient" (a typical procedure of pop culture). Some of their creations are really tasteful. Although they have not invented it, they have the merit of being able to introduce new possibilities in the conception of music to a wider audience, because they do this in the context of club culture. In any case, if I would have to choose, despite the aesthetical differences, I would be closer to this DJ scene than to the Schaferian world. My friend Zbigniew Karkowski has been DJing quite successfully in Tokyo with my jungle recordings from Costa Rica, which I find wonderful.

R&C: While the practice of DJing questions the very idea of the demiurgic role of the composer, you remain very attached to the principle and the importance of the composer. DJing questions the reality of the composer, and this approach can also be found in the aesthetics of contemporary art where the author disapperas. The work of art is also questioned, to the benefit of social experimentation. What is for you the actuality of those notions of "work" and "author", now deemed no longer valid by some critics?

Francisco López: To me, the practice of some DJs, as well as that of many other creators working with pre-released material, does not question the role of the composer as much as the idea of the finished work. DJs are also individually recognized for their abilities, taste, attitude and personality. And, in this sense, they also become authors.
The relevant question is more about the property of certain features of the source material. This was much easier in the past: while the sound of a piano is not copyrighted, a melody is; a conception of the support closer to literature than to sound. After so many years of usage, there's still a patent inability to fully appreciate the concept-shifting consequences of sound recording. A sound recording can be much more than a mere register of a past sound event. Once a music performance or any other sound is recorded and made publicly available, it physically becomes a potential source for further usage / transformation / manipulation by anyone, including the "original" author. In other words, it has became a sound object out there in the world. This does not deny its quality as a work, but as an end-product; it does not denies its authorship, either, but questions the authority over it. Copyright laws are obviously against this, but they can only apply under restricted limits of recognizability. Any "original" sound source can be transformed to the extent of making it impossible to be recognized, even by the author. Since the passage from a recognizable "version" or "remix" to something completely new is a continuum, the problem cannot be easily solved. In this context, the concepts of version or remix are actually obsolete; they come from a tradition of arrangements in classical and popular music, and it's surprising to see that even DJs and other manipulators still stick to them.
I don't remain attached to a principle of authority, but I rather invoke a decision-based one. We should not think of composers as authors, but as decision-makers. Anyone can be a composer if he/she takes a decision. For example, to decide what is music and what is not; this is much more relevant for composition than to learn how to play an instrument or to operate a complex music software. The question is not to pretend that this decision is imposed to others, i.e., the non-universality of the definition of music. This is where I keep my faith in personality, not making the mistake of opposing individual power-laden authorship to social shared "freedom". The decision of a DJ to combine several released records, or that of a studio manipulator to transform them, can be confronted with legal authorship actions, but these are overcome by a creative decision.

R&C: Electroacoustic music has often been criticized for being dependent upon its technicians: the act of writing music was subordinated to them. Today, this idea seems less pertinent, since new technologies have been developed and home-made music has thrived. Nevertheless, it can be considered that this role has now been taken by the designers of the entertainment industry. The creative act now depends on them. What is your relationship to technology, particularly on a philosophical basis?

Francisco López: I think that the essence of creation has never been dependent upon technology. This is a procedural perspective on what music is, that could be equally applied (with a different kind of technology) to classical music. The alluded dependence on studio technicians or the software / hardware designers is only felt that way in the academic electroacoustic world, and is indeed a demostration of the sick conception of music that reigns there. Although I use technology, I have no interest and -what is more important- no respect for it as a driving force in creation. I understand it as a tool in the most scornful sense of the word. For me, the better support for this belief are the sonic results of different people working with different levels of technology.

R&C: You also oppose Murray Schafer's documentary approach of the sound landscape, and his criticism of electro-acoustic music. He evokes schizophonia concerning the separation of sound from its source that the electro-acousticians practice. Therefore, how do we re-establish an ecological link with the sound source?

Francisco López: First, I think there's a great deal of emptiness in the concept of an "ecological link" between the sounds and their sources. I guess this depends on the concept of ecology that everyone is upholding, but any scientific approach to it would be pointless here. Second, and more important, I don't see why we should pretend to re-establish such a link. This is an already existing possibility that is not denied by that of separating sounds from its sources. The misleading assumption of this "separation" is precisely the problem. Since sound is a vibration of air and then of our inner ear structures, it belongs to these as much as to the "source". To criticize sound recordings in these terms is simply not to understand the meaning of the Schaefferian concept of sound object as an independent and self-sufficient entity. The schizophonia of Schafer and the objet sonore of Schaeffer are antagonistic conceptions of the same fact (Evan Eisenberg's book "The recording angel" is also enlightening with regards to the phonographic phenomenon).
I am professor of ecology and I have been recording and composing with sound environments since almost twenty years now. Although I am quite aware of the obvious relationships between all the properties of a real environment, I think it is an essential feature of the human condition to creatively deal with any aspect(s) of this reality. I believe that what is under question here is the extent of artistic freedom with regards to other aspects of our understanding of reality. There can be a documentary or communicative reason to keep the cause-object relationship in the work with soundscapes, but this is not a necessity of the creative act. Actually, I am convinced that the more this relationship is kept, the less musical the work will be. A musical composition (no matter whether based on soundscapes or not) must be a free action in the sense of not having to refuse any extraction of elements from reality and also in the sense of having the full right to be self-referential, not being subjected to a pragmatic goal such as a supposed, unjustified re-integration of the listener with the environment.

R&C: In "La Selva", that you present as sound environments from a tropical forest, you ask the dialectical question of nature versus culture. You present the forest as a wonderful acousmatic natural surrounding, a surrounding now confined in the role of a virtual exotic landscape. What was the concept behind the recordings in Costa Rica?

Francisco López: This piece was first and foremost the result of my personal experience working in the Costa Rican jungle for several years. The richness of textures and dynamics of these sound environments are so astonishing that the original recordings were kept un-processed in the final piece. This is a pure compositional decision and not an intention of documenting the place in any way. I think that the widespread tendency in nature recordings to try to reproduce the experience of "being in the place" is a futile attempt at portraying certain aspects of reality. What I defend here is the transcendental dimension of the sound matter by itseld. In my conception, the essence of sound recording is not that of documenting or representing a much richer and more significant world, but a way to focus on and access the inner world of sounds. When the representational / relational level is emphasized, sounds acquire a restricted meaning or a goal, and this inner world is dissipated. With this piece, I also try to move forcefully away from the common understanding of environmental recordings as relaxation or virtual commodities. What I propose instead is a more difficult and thrilling experience: a transcendental immersion in sound matter, a tour de force of profound listening. The richness of this sound matter in nature is astonishing, but to appreciate it in depth we have to face the challenge of profound listening. We have to shift the focus of our attention and understanding from representation to being. Or, in other terms, we should be free to do this.

R&C: What is the principle behind your sound installations "Acousmatic Rooms" (darkened spaces defined by sound)?

Francisco López: The "acousmatic rooms" form a series of sound installations in which an empty enclosed space is kept in complete darkness and is thus defined solely by sound. The are no rules and no defined intentions as to what to do inside, and people entering the room are free to decide what kind of experience they want to create for themselves. So far, they have been realized in Madrid, Rotterdam and Mexico City. The idea behind this installations, which I also apply in the performances, is an extremely simple one and does not aims to be "creative" or "complementary", but it's a necessary consequence of my approach to sound.
Several years ago I stopped using any visual elements in the performances, which includes any light. After many performances in quite diverse spaces and situations, trying to attain complete darkness (which is nearly impossible in strict terms), I came to the conclusion that individual darkness is a much better solution, so I started blindfolding audiences. This has an amazing level of effectiveness to avoid the dissipative distractions of visal elements and helps greatly to attain an immersive profound listening.
For obvious reasons, this process was parallel to my decision of abandonment of titles in the pieces and sleeves in the releases.

R&C: Repetition - and the displacement of the Benjaminian notion of aura it induces - is linked to the mutation of production techniques and consumerism. In order to question Benjamin's concept, DJ Spooky created the concept of replication, that is: to re-interpret old musical sequences on a support, using new arrangements played live to re-build some aura. The electronic part of your music is based on repetition, or at least the expansion of a musical cellular unit ad infinitum, the principle being one of cloning a sound cell. How do you understand the concept of repetition and the question of aura in the era of mass-duplication?

Francisco López: In my opinion, DJ Spooky didn't invented this. Long before him, well-known people like John Oswald (Plunderphonics), Negativland or Christian Marclay, or less known people like Zan "the combiner" Hoffman, Croiners, the Tape Beatles, or Crawling with Tarts, among many others, were already (and most still are) working intensively with this re-appropiation, re-building, re-construction, re-definition of pre-released stuff of all kinds. They have been simply ignored by mass-media popular culture.
The repetition and slow modification of cell musical units was the historical path followed by most American minimalist composers (and their European counterparts), with a very peculiar and, in my opinion, poor way to parallel the achivements of their minimalist partners in sculpture or painting. I don't work with such a structural conception and don't consider my music to be repetitive at all. As I perceive them, both the sound environments that I create and those that I listen to with fascination (generated by others or by the world) are not repetitive; they have a solid, flowing, permanent presence.
In any case, any structuralist conception is a banal distraction from the essence of music. The common basis of the historical musical "revolutions" (and the consequent habits they have generated) during the second half of this century has systematically been the structuralist question of the achivement of an openness in the form. In the process, the content has been closed again with meaning. We should ignore whether or not the form is open. What I propose is a transcendental conception of music through sonic immersion and profound listening, an absolute music, freed from the dissiative agents of proceduralism, structuralism, functionalism, rationalism; that is, a music with an open content.