What does sound want?Christina Kubisch & Christophe Fellay

Interviews 31.05.2023

In the 1970s, a number of artists from the music world decided to leave the stage and invest other spaces, creating new forms known as "site-specific" or sound installations/environments. Christina Kubisch belongs to this first generation of sound artists. Christophe Fellay, from another generation, took the same turn in the early 1990s. So what are these new forms, and how have they transformed their relationship with the listener and the audience? 

Christina Kubisch, how do you see the role of the instrumentalist in art, music and performance?
The role of the instrumentalist has changed a lot in the history of music. It can't be defined in general terms, as it depends on the period, the musical style, the social structure of the audience, etc.
In 15th-century Venice, the instrumentalist was the singer; his instrument was the voice, and he was supposed to know how to improvise with it. The Baroque period made extensive use of improvisation in melodies and accompaniments. The very classical period of Western music was still open to different interpretations, but less "free". Then in the "new music" of the last century, and often to this day, the instrumentalist is no longer free at all, and is expected to play very difficult parts, exactly as they are written.
The composer is the king, the instrumentalist the servant.
The period when I studied flute in the 1960s and early 1970s was often like this. But today, the "instrumentalist" no longer exists in the traditional sense, with young musicians often taking part in the composition process, working with composers and becoming partners in creation. The term "interpreter-composer" has become normal, and composers must respect the creative contribution of the instrumentalist.
Christophe Fellay: Today's instrumentalist is no longer simply a high-flying interpreter for music or in the service of art and performance, but is above all a creator who seeks to evolve his relationship with the instrument, looking for new ways to address his work and the best possible context in which to do so. I'm interested in the status given to the instrument and the possibility of considering it for itself, for its properties and the sounds that might emanate from it before any sound is produced. It's a strategy of approaching through silence, considering the sculptural qualities of instruments, in search of unprecedented sound potential in what might be understood as a kind of preamble to instrumental practice. In my own approach, I've been inspired by the work of artists such as Max Neuhaus, Maryanne Amacher and Pauline Oliveros, who at one time or another questioned their instrumental or compositional approach outside any musical intentionality, often outside the field of music. For several years now, this has led me to take an interest in theoretical and practical research into the relationship between the human and the non-human, which shows that objects, and by extension instruments, are neither passive nor inert, nor are they simply at the disposal of instrumentalists to be used/approached according to our sole will.
Like many sound creators, I worked for a long time on the basis of what sound wants, before extending this question to my relationship with instruments.

In your career, at what point did this place become a question?
CK: I began the Emergency solos series in 1974, when I questioned the classical role of a female flautist by creating a series of performances in which I played the flute with metal thimbles, boxing gloves and condoms, for example. At the time, some traditional music critics said I only played these pieces because I wasn't capable of interpreting difficult scores of new music, but in fact I wasn't interested any more because there was no creative participation in the performance process.

CF: From the mid-1990s onwards, I became interested in developing strategies to go beyond a certain instrumental virtuosity. I became interested in the sounds and sonorities of my instrument - the drums - working to develop dynamic ecosystems in which I could interact with them as equals. I wondered how the relationship between the instrumentalist and his or her instrument could be redefined so that the instrumental possibilities and the performer's abilities mutually co-determined. I was interested in what might be called the "hidden worlds" of sounds and instruments, i.e., the sonic potential that is present but still hidden and capable of being revealed when instrument and performer are placed in innovative networks of relationships. These different networks of relationships had to be capable of extending my capacities to affect and be affected, in a less anthropocentric approach to the instrument. Instead of seeking its absolute control, I wanted to let myself be guided and learn from my instrument, to let it shape me. 

How did this questioning inspire you to create new forms?
In the early 1970s, I studied at the Zurich Conservatory, but I also attended courses in musical ethnology at the local university. I was impressed by the fact that music could be part of everyday life without being a special spectacle on a stage. During this decade, many composers and musicians traveled to Africa, India and other non-Western countries to listen to and eventually play with local musicians. There was no Internet, no computer, so you had to travel and experience it first-hand. For my part, I wanted to create a new form of listening, individual and outside the usual concert halls. In the 1970s and 1980s, there were many small festivals offering exciting and unusual venues for creation. The term "sound installation" didn't exist in the early days, but the importance of a specific listening space was part of the research of many young musicians/composers/instrumentalists.
CF: As a drummer, I literally began listening to my instrument using a mobile microphone (held in my hand) as a microscopic ear, which, step by step, turned into a virtual drumstick. The extension of this work into amplified loudspeakers opened the way to a spatial displacement of the sound of my instrument towards the loudspeaker, and initiated research into both sonorities and the three complementary spaces that have accompanied me in most of my works ever since: physical space, virtual space and mental space.
I had the intuition that to let my instrument speak, I had to give the sounds time to be themselves. The drums don't have a sustaining pedal - like the piano or vibraphone, for example - and the drummer's action is necessary to maintain and develop the sound over time, which, in my approach, raised a number of questions. Working on durations has enabled me to create immersive performances and sound installations that make use of long time and slowness. I'm also interested in the boundaries of perception, such as the beat becoming a sound frequency and vice-versa.

As a child, I used to play the drum with the ensemble my father led, while marching in parades through the valleys and villages of the Alps, which is a highly singular experience: the quantity, quality and duration of the echoes vary significantly and permanently. The context acts directly on the sounds, with filtering, amplification, echo and reverberation effects. With this in mind, I've been working on spatialized performances in which the audience is invited to move around freely. For my performances and sound installations, I move from the exploration of resonant spaces, such as industrial halls or religious buildings, to more complex environments and the use of architectural spaces as resonance boxes.
I am currently working on real, virtual and imaginary spaces as part of a collaborative project between Europe and South Africa called Listening At The Edge. The L.A.T.E. project is a participatory process that explores, through listening, the various limits, edges and contours between our disciplines, origins, living places, creative contexts, etc. Listening, improvising, creating and reacting to each other and to the plurality of contexts form the basis of this exploration. We seek to extend the contributions of collective members between disciplines, but also geographically by extending the spaces of creation at a distance.

How do these new forms you've each created and experimented with question the place of listening, of the audience?
I like to create spaces where people can choose where, how and for how long they want to listen (to music?). They can stay in one place for an hour, or quickly change position and move around the installation in ten minutes. It's simply a situation where you can start listening for as long as you like and then leave.
Creating a sound environment is a very different process from that involved in a 20-minute performance with a very precise beginning, development and end. I also like "structured stage music", but I'm more interested in other forms of composition and especially site-specific installations.

Christina Kubisch - Electrical Walks. An introduction to Christina Kubisch's "Electrical Walks" series of works from Christina Kubisch on Vimeo.

CF: All forms of sound and/or musical creation involve listening to varying degrees, but in such a sound-centered approach, it can be considered a vital parameter. As a creator, my position is above all that of the listener, and the question of listening is at the root of most of my work. In most of my creations, I work from a particular practice of listening that suggests a movement that begins with attention to detail and culminates in form. I never cease to question listening as a creative tool, even when a form of non-listening may be useful to allow sounds to develop according to their own temporality. This necessary distancing from over-reactive listening encourages discovery and opens the way to a less anthropocentric approach to my work.
I like to think that the kinds of processes I implement, centered on sound, rhythm, movement and architecture, can be approached as energy-related phenomena: if sounds touch us or the listener, it's not because we understand them, but because we are drawn into forms of transformation in which we (listeners) actively participate. This offers the listener the opportunity to co-construct a sonic imaginary, to take the time to create associations, and to give memories and past experiences the chance to resurface.

Can you give us an example of one of these forms of composition or site-specific installations that you've been working on recently?
CK: My installations are very often site-specific. This means that they can only be made once, because they are designed for a particular place, its architecture, atmosphere, history, acoustic characteristics, etc. One of the biggest works I've done is Licht Himmel. One of the biggest works was Licht Himmel, a commission for the Gasometer in Oberhausen, a former gas reservoir in Germany's Ruhr region. I used special lights and developed a 14-channel sound environment for the enormous metal tower, almost 100 meters high. I had to visit the site several times to experiment with light and sound, as no computer simulation was satisfactory due to the particular architecture and environment. The tower's metal skin seemed solid, but all the noises coming from outside (wind, rain, traffic, trains, cars, railroads, etc.) produced sounds that penetrated inside and became part of the sound installation.
I had to work with my own sounds and adapt to the unpredictable elements outside. You could hear the composition as you entered the space and rode an elevator to the top of a platform. The listening and visual aspect varied according to the visitor's position, the weather, the listening position inside the gasometer and the length of time a person was prepared to stay (the total duration of the composition was 120 minutes). 

Other installations may travel, but although the basic structure is fixed, they are always installed in relation to a given space. The color of the electric cable, the sound sequences, the carrier structure or the number of channels may change, but the general character of the work remains. Works of this type include La Serrawhich began in 2017, or Weavingin progress since 2018.

CF: Recently, in collaboration with the MUDAC in Lausanne and the CID Grand-Hornu in Belgium, I created a sound installation called Signatures sonores #1 (2022), which connects visitors with the hidden properties of objects. I created the sound signatures of sixty-four contemporary Lebanese design objects. These signatures are based on the shape, dimensions, volume, quality and density of the materials used in their manufacture. The fundamental and harmonic frequencies of each object were modeled and then realized in a digital and cognitive musicology laboratory, before serving as the support-partition for the creation of the work. The installation uses forty-five loudspeakers to broadcast sound spaces structured like architectural elements that can be walked through, and in which visitors and objects cohabit. This approach was extended to the objects/instruments that make up my drum kit for the piece entitled UnFrozen (2023) for an exhibition at 601Artspace in New York. 

Interview by Anne-Laure Chamboissier

Photos © Chris Morgan
Photos © Studio Edouard Curchod
Photos © Gilles Christen
Photos © Zivani Mutangi


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