Listening to environmental sound recordings merged into electronic processes having the feeling of listening to a refined and complex electroacoustic composition: this happens when you listen to a CD or an installation of Francisco López, a Spanish artist, entomologist and professor of ecology.
Known internationally as a sound artist for his sensibility to the sounds around us, he is able to present his tracks with a surrounding listening and without great sound-visual effects, but with the simple idea that: you must listen to the sound in an immersive way. Francisco López helded hundreds of installations and performances, he recieved important awards including four honorary mentions at the Ars Electronica Preis, and the Qwartz Award 2010 for the best sound anthology.
The fact that he studied biology and teaches ecology brings to the mind the environmentalist current of the 70’s started by Murray Shaffer, from which sound ecology and the word soundscape recordings (environmental sound recordings) take theirs name. Instead López finds himself in contrast to the critical idea of Murray Shaffer and his collaborators about noise pollutions that are invading the natural and urban environment, and is far away from their practice to document and represent sounds.
The noise in his recordings as the slightest sound, is a rich sound, is layering, it is not documented but proposed as musical/electronicmaterial, which doesn’t lose it’s real metter but simply doesn’t reveal the source of the sound and rather reveals its essence, its physicality. He don’t investigates the sound reality, he captures the essence and the texture of the world around us. For 35 years till now López tries to destroy the distinctions between industrial sounds and natural sounds in the wild environments.
López began experimenting with sound recordings as a child in the 70’s – when a lot of people were experimenting with tape recorders. His musical production begins since the early 80es as a series of self published and untitled tracks and cassettes. In “Azoic Zone” (1993) – a CD with 10 authorswhich proposed a sonic journey into the world of organisms of the deep see – there is for the first time a merge between his scientific and artistic soul. There you can listen to those almost mystical underground soundscapesthat will mark its continuous recording work. In other albums, including “La Selva” (1997), in which there are recordings of the rain forest in Costa Rica, and “Buildings [New York]” (2011) (for which he received an honorary mention by the Prix Ars Electronica) , which reproduces the resonances and interferences inside the skyscrapers of New York, the sound material is proposed as it appears, without further modifications or deformations.
During his early artistic and sound practice he didn’t had an opportunity to do live performances – living in Madrid there were no possibilities or a dedicated space. Its first performance took place in the United States, and then he understood the great possibilities offered by real time sound processing. By the time he developed a style defined as mysterious, in which there is a transposition of the enigma of the sound and theaural state in an art form.
His recording practiceis based on field recordings of a total environment. He don’t starts from an idea of a sound to be recorded, but gets caught by the sound density from the environment. His field recordings are not samplings or short recordings, but they last up to 24 hours (battery permitting). When recording he is attracted by rich acoustic stimuli inside environments like rainforests, underwater environments using hydrophones, evenspeed metal concerts. Covering a very wide range of frequencies is what stimulates him, to do this he often uses up to 4 portable recorders simultaneously.
Over the years his sound researches led to hundreds of CDs and albums (including collaborations with other artists such as Lawrence English, Novi_sad, Reinier van Houdt) from which often it is not possible to extrapolate informations on the origin of the raw material-sound (skinny packaging, abstract titles), because he wants to present the sound field as such, in a musical sense, and leave the listeners “in the dark”.
The dark factor becomes critical to López around the 90’s. During his performances the sound had to be immersive, which implies either the absence of light or visual stimuli and not a stereo sound but a spatialized surround sound. These technical precautions have led him to decide to provide blindfolds for the audience. The absence of visual stimuli is essential during his performances, as the decision to place the audience in the middle of the concert room and surround them with the sound: this is necessary to approach the sound material with the whole body and not merely listen to it.
On February 22, Francisco López has presented a site-specific performance at the Auditorium San Fedele in Milan, as part of INNER_SPACES 2016, a festival of electronic music and audiovisual art with live performances from organized from the Auditorium itself (the next event will be the 2nd of May, with R/S [Peter Rehberg, Marcus Schmickler] and Oren Ambarchi/Thomas Brinkmann, curated by Manuela Benetton). After this experience, blindfolded and liable to inner resonances, we decided to interview him.
Roberta Busechian: Starting from your first recordings of the Eighties, in the case of works such as “Untitled (90′) Anomma (Spain)”: which idea inspired you to create these tracks?It began from your research in the scientific field, as later will happen with “La Selva”, or there was a precise idea that inspired you to start an audio / musical practice?
Francisco López: No specific ideas have ever informed my compositional practice. At the time I was driven my a fascination with sound as generator of space and time, particularly in the contrast between the sonic maifestations of so-called “reality” and those of recorded environments.
Roberta Busechian: In the Eighties you were playing drums in several bands: the post-punk and new wave period of your musical experience influenced your sound research in the following years? “Untitled # 104” is derived from recordings of a speed metal concert. It is therefore irrelevant whether the raw material of your work derives from the natural environment or not?
Francisco López: The instrumental realm has its own appealing features but I always feel its limitations are dramatic. I’ve always been intersted in music and sound, and playing with bands was of course fun at the time, but working with any sonic materials was a gigantic liberation and an opening to a much richer, wider and more fascinating world.
Roberta Busechian: Your discography is quite extended, ranging from album with multiple artists to collaborations with other artists like “Novi_sad – Titans” or “Untitled # 275” with the musician van Houdt, both albums of 2012. There is a conceptual difference between the tracks where you are the only artist, and collaborations where as with van Houdt, there is an iteration between electronic sound and an instrument?
Francisco López: I guess the main difference would be the obvious input from the collaborators and the challenges –with failures and successes- of such an interaction. True collaboration is a serious challenge.
Roberta Busechian: Picking up one of your CDs, there are no informations about its contents, the titles are very conceptual and often appears an “Untitled”. The fact of listening to your CDs without a knowledge about the place and the time, is part of the mystery in your work, in which it is not necessary to know where the sound is coming from or to what is linked? Do you think that the immersive quality of your music changes if we are listening to your CDs or to one of your performances?
Francisco López: In my view, giving no titles to pieces / records is not a conceptual stance but the opposite, a very concrete and straightforward one. Being intentionally cryptic is another stance of mine (and, fortunately, I’m of course not the only artist with that approach) that has to do with the role of the listener as creator. Unlike the often failed proselytist approach, I believe that the cryptic enhances the relationship of any listener to a sound work.
Roberta Busechian: With La Selva (1997) and Buildings [New York] (2011), two of the most popularalbums of yours, you’ve worked in a different way.Both of them, where the first offers recordings of a rainforest in Costa Rica, the second presents the sounds inside of skyscrapers in New York, are related by texts written by you and clarifications about the backgroud of the recordings, the conceptual and philosophical part of the works. Having these preliminary information, does the listener have another approach to your music, what kind of listening we are talking about?
Francisco López: The true challenge for a phenomenological listening is precisely a situation when we know (normally because we are told) what are the “sources” of the sounds. In the case of the CD releases of those pieces, the booklets were originally closed with a sticker and a written recommendation not to open them…
Roberta Busechian: In your compositions you don’t want to represent reality but rather to explore its textures, bringing the listener into a virtual reality. You can define the concept of “virtual reality” linked to your sound recordings?
Francisco López: I want to explore much more than “textures”… let’s say, for starters, the sonic ontological. In terms of sound creation, I’m not interested in simulation (other than in a superficial way for other purposes). Any imaginable form of “virtual reality” (which I don’t claim), therefore, would be virtual only in the sense of any imagined features of space or time –or any other feature of “reality”- that has been generated solely by sound.
Roberta Busechian: In your performance-installation Hyper- Rainforest (2011) – a layering of recordings from different locations in the world – there is a more real sound reality than reality itself? How this work is related with your search of the matter of reality?
Francisco López: With that piece/installation I tried to highlight the hyperreal that inevitably takes place when we deal with recordings of sound environments (as it of course happens in the visual realm). This is not a praise of technology “going beyond our capabilities” but the observation of representation being – in the creative realm – a delusion.
Roberta Busechian: In the installation “Untitled # 223” at the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid (2011), there is a clear exposition of the relationship between sound and space in your work: the sound is not related to space but rather it is the space itself. Can you talk about the kind of listening activated by this installation?
Francisco López: Hopefully, more or less what you described: space being generated by sound. And, naturally, a sense of awe deriving from that.
Roberta Busechian: Starting from the Nineties, during your performances you blindfold the listeners. This is because you want them to focus completely on the sound, and not on the visual matter. The acousmatic listening is critical to get mentally in the essence of the sound?
Francisco López: The crucial precision I always make: I do not blindfold the listeners; I provide blindfolds for the audience; they’re used voluntarily and for a good cause: not just enhanced listening but also committed listening in the form of a willful collective ritual.
Roberta Busechian: Whatis the relationship between listening to your own tracks and meditation? What kind of linternal experience do you live doing field recordings?
Francisco López: I don’t know enough about meditation to answer this. Personally, I have lived and I continue to live all kinds of revelations and epiphanies through the creative work with sound. The kinds you would have a very hard time trying to specify into words, if you know what I mean…
Roberta Busechian: On February 22th (2016) you’ve performed “Untitled” at the Auditorium San Fedele in Milan, can you explain to us how do you interact with sound and how do you behave with the pre-recorded sound during these performances?
Francisco López: “Pre-recorded” sound is an oxymoron and a very misleading concept. There’s no sound in code (or in any other previous form of recording). It needs to be re-physicalized from it and that cannot happen independently of a space and a sound system. I cannot emphasize enough how crucial that step is and how little attention it seems to receive from most musicians and sound artists. Besides that, in a live performance, I typically do lots of different simultaneous processes (which, in the best cryptic practice, I’m not going to reveal ;-)) that transform, blend, shape and spatialize the sound in the actuality of the space and the sound system (thaht is, attending and reacting carefully to the phenomenological features of the enviornment where the re-physicalization takes place).
Roberta Busechian: Finally a Cagean question: especially in your past works you’ve putted a lot of attention to the silences. It is definitely an important element to create contrasts between empty spaces and noise and to create different dynamics in your tracks, but, as in the case of the absence of the visual stimuli, it has a meaning for the understanding of the sound itself?
Francisco López: Naturally. And that, by the way, would be an anti-Cagean question…