SL: Hey! What's going on? You're at home? Or at work?
CW: I'm at home, man.
SL: Same here.
CW: Crazy eh. I only went to work for the first time on Wednesday last week! I haven't gone out since the lockdown!
SL: Well, the world is still out there. *laughs* And it is pretty similar to how it was…
CW: Yeah, I figured…
But yeah, for this interview I think those preliminary questions I sent you way back could be a good starting off point, and then we will just chat through how you go about your work in the field and in the studio, and there will no doubt be some tangents along the way.
SL: And then I will transcribe it, and we will edit it together and add to the text as needed.
CW: Cool. Remind me of those questions again, man.
SL: Well, let’s just start…
I'd asked how you first got into working with field recorded sound, with environmental sounds, and were saying that you'd been gifted a cassette recorder.
CW: Yeah. It is somewhere here in this room, actually.
SL: It was your eleventh birthday, I think you'd said?
CW: Yeah. So, I was talking to my folks, and I said, I want to record bird sounds…
CW: I wanted to use them for ideas about composition. I didn't know how I was going to do it, but I just wanted to get these recordings 'cause I knew that with tape you could change the speed up or down. So I got a little dictaphone with little mini-cassettes, and it wasn't very good! *laughs* You know, here's me thinking I was going to get some form of clarity, or whatever.
I don't know what I was thinking. But basically I was hoping the recordings would mimic what I could hear, but it was kind of different. And it kind of started from there, and you know, messing around with my parents' stereo and getting in the equipment and thinking about how I can record things and alter things.
SL: What sort of music were you listening to at that point? Were you aware of any work using tape recordings?…
CW: As a kid?
CW: Mmmm, eleven…
SL: I mean now, as we both know, there is a whole history of music that made use of tools and material similar to what you were interested in, but as a young boy I presume you weren't aware of, say, Pierre Schaeffer…
CW: No, no.
SL: Was there any relationship between your interest in recording with tape and the music you were hearing as a child, do you think? Or was it just your curiosity as a child?
CW: I think, yeah, it was a combination of curiosity, but also there is the mystery of the recording, and music being within a recording. And there is a mystery or a story within it and you can even hear it within the production, and you can think about how that music came to be in terms of the technical things and the musicianship and the circumstance of its being recorded, the studio and so on. And I guess part of the motivation was to get a slice of life, something that is captured or mediated through this little thing, the dictaphone, in the form of a recording. And I guess with the fidelity of the shitty dictaphone, it changes as well, because the recording you end up with is not the same as what you were hearing. It is not the same, frequencies come in and out, so it adds a layer of mystery to it.
So, noise = mystery, which is a good thing.
SL: I mean it is a long time ago, so I'd forgive you if you don't remember exactly what you were thinking, but when you first started using this cassette recorder as a boy, and you found that, Oh this isn't actually what the world sounds like, do you remember how you felt about this difference that you were experiencing between the recording and the real world as you were experiencing it with your ears?
CW: I guess distortion is key here. And I'm not meaning like full on distortion, but more like a fidelity distortion, or some sort of distance, that sort of thing. I mean tape was all I could afford and I didn't know what else you could record on, to be honest.
All I knew was cassette, or some form of cassette. It was well after that when I encountered reel-to-reel stuff. But in terms of what I was listening to at eleven, ummm, it was kind of like metal, and (I was thinking about this the other day) all that sort of So-Cal, Southern California, hardcore, and all that sort of stuff.
So I was already rough and ready! I guess it was the energy of the distortion that I was intrigued by, in terms of music stuff…
SL: And were you playing guitar, or any other instruments?
CW: Not at that point, in fact I had no desire until a little bit later, until probably about a year later. Someone was playing some Deep Purple lick at high school and it made the windows vibrate in the music room, and I was like, Fuck! That’s cool! It was more a vibration thing. Like, Wow! Sheer volume can do that! I was kinda gravitated toward it like a moth to a lightbulb!
I was aware of that sort of electricity thing. That kind of got me, too. I was like, okay, Field recording is an electric thing, essentially, which is Hoovering up, in its own sort of way, an instance of interest. And then, it goes into a library of sorts to be looked at later.
SL: And what sort of places were you interested in going to, were there any specific places you would record at? Or was it more about the act of taking an instance of time, and the act of preserving that, of taking that out of the world for later? Or if going to certain spaces was interesting to you, what sort of places would you go to, and why were you interested in going there?
CW: The recordings I made, I guess I kind of made them by default, right? With the dictaphone – I wonder if I can find it – it was small. You could put it in your shirt pocket. So you could just kind of go anywhere and be like, Right, I've got my recorder on me! It was that lose, you know? Rather than me going, Hmmm, I need to really find the essence of this location through these recordings, or something, it was like, I'm just here!
I think it kind of boils down to a sensibility more than the importance of that place, unless it is really significant for whatever reason. So that means it is open slather.
SL: So you'd record birds. What other sort of things were you recording early on?
CW: I loved the sounds of wet roads, you know, with the Doppler effect, *Mimics the effect*, and long roads, really long roads. So country roads, where you could hear a car coming from kilometers away. And there is this, like, amazing parabolic thing that happens in terms of the left and right channels and stuff.
SL: Where in the country were you? Up in the Coromandel Peninsula?
CW: Yeah. I did a lot of recordings from the Coromandel, just because, again by proxy, I'd be there 'cause of family, or just hanging out there and stuff. And so I guess that is where 'The Rule' comes in, where I've always got a recorder handy *reaches across from his seat to grab a Zoom H4n portable recording device* so it is literally always moments away. *laughs*
That's ‘The Golden Rule’. Always.
I think with anything I do, there is a discipline. There are rules.
SL: That's interesting.
So, if ‘The Golden Rule’ is, Always have at hand the means to record, what are some other important principals?
Have they changed over time?
CW: Ummm, another rule is: No monitoring. No headphones!
SL: Okay, that's interesting too.
CW: As long as the levels are good on the recording device, it is a 'later job'.
That rule came from especially recording in China where I needed to be really careful not to look too much like I was recording. So once I got to a point, I was like, I know what it sounds like, what the recorder sounds like, and I know what's going on. I mean I've used these things for years. This is my equivalent to the dictaphone now. It is an H4n.
Another rule: Just Leave It! Hands Off! I do this a lot: *puts hands up in the air*. Just fucking leave it. Walk away.
And another one is to do with duration. If I am making a field recording, it needs to be a minimum of ten minutes, as a minimum. And when I was over in South Africa, the minimum was hours. Literally hours. You'd literally leave your recorders and microphones wherever you were working, you’d leave the location and come back hours later. So you needed to have crazy-arse batteries and have everything on stamina mode, and be super efficient about everything. Leave it in the shade, and you know, run the risk of animals gnawing at it.
And also, another rule is: Don’t be dependent on post-production. A recording has to be like a good photograph. It is something that is captured in the instant and doesn't need any doctoring at all. There is this horrible saying, Oh we will just leave it for post. It's fucking lazy! You know? Through practice, and knowing your equipment, you should be able to get it then and there! And that's it! Then it goes into the library for later use.
SL: It's quite a purist kind of approach.
It is part laziness too.
I guess pragmatically if you've already got something of quality, you ultimately need less time as you're not having to spend hours with filters and equalisers and compression in the studio afterwards, right?
CW: Yep, that's the principal. And I think that also comes from, like, the experience of not doing that in the past, and basically just squashing the life out of anything.
If there are pops and clicks and errors and all that sort of stuff, so be it!
SL: And I suppose that also goes to the way you work with the recordings later? You wouldn't be splicing or anything? The recording is the recording, from when you press 'record', to when you press 'record' again to stop the recording?
SL: You've mentioned your trip to South Africa and going to China, and we will get to both of those experiences in a minute, but are there any other places of especial interest that you've been to for work?
CW: Oh totally!
I took a lot of recordings inside taxis in Taiwan, in Taipei where the speed limit is open. So I was trying to capture that tension of being in a capsule on four wheels, hurtling down these brand new highways and the driver being really calm, and people even overtaking and all this sort of thing. So there is this oxymoronic quality to the situation, and all you could do was kind of laugh about it – there was nothing else you could do! So recording the interiors of these taxis, Don't talk – I don't want to have a conversation anyway, I'm just listening and trying to record what’s happening; the traffic going by, the AC going and all that sort of shit.
So yeah, I really liked recording the inside of traveling cars. I did some more of that while I was in China. There are some really interesting acoustic phenomena that happen inside the big tunnels that go for kilometers.
Ahhhh, where else? I did some pretty nice recordings in Torino, in Italy. And that was, again, traffic based, but it was very rhythmical because of the old roads, which are made of bricks and cobblestone.
And I have a great series of hotel-recordings… Wherever I stay, which usually is some kind of hotel, I turn the hotel room into a recording studio, and I take my contact microphones and I hook them up to the windows and the walls, and again, I leave the recorder running to capture the vibrations of the hotel as they're occurring. *laughs* So it is kind of distant sounds of, like, doors shutting from way down the hallway, and if you gain up the recorder you can get all these crazy sounds of pipes and shit happening. Atmospherics coming off the windows, all that kind of stuff.
So it is this autonomous kind of set up… So wherever I am, there is going to be a recorder doing something! *laughs*
SL: Sure, sure!
And when you're making these recordings, I'm guessing that, because you've been doing it over a long period of time, you accumulate a lot of material, and I imagine that you don't always have an end-use for the material…
Is that a fair assumption?
CW: Yep, that's right.
SL: Is that more often the case that you're making recordings out of habit, or to satisfy a sort of personal work ethic? Or is it more often that you have an end in mind for the recordings?
And do you have a preference, between these two ways of working? Between these two motivations for working?
CW: I kinda operate with both.
There needs to be an outcome, eventually, whether it be used for atmospherics for film or documentary – so more kind of literal things – or for compositions that I produce. So the recordings are always going to be used for something, but mainly compositions, so multi-track situations.
But it is also the joy of it, actually, that impulse to go out there and do that work, but also knowing that this will be used, whether it be an installation or video work, or sound piece, a composition, film, documentary…
So there is like this huge fucking reservoir that I basically dip into when required.
SL: And because you have such an expansive archive of material (I imagine), how often is it that you have a new project and feel the need to actually go back into the world to source new material?
Or is it that you always prefer to work with new materials?
CW: Not often!
SL: And when it comes to composition, I mean you work across a number of different genres, it is fair to say, do you find yourself repeating certain modes of working as you engage with your archive of material, or is it more playful and open?
CW: I think it always needs to be performative, or playful as you say, in order to maintain a sense of liveliness to it; a sense that someone, a person, is actually going through these motions of sound in a timeline; so, the performance aspect, in terms of how you combine sounds, or treat sound, and how long it should be going for, etcetera, etcetera. It is quite a manual process as opposed to a sort of a Lego-situation with DAWs (Digital Audio Work Stations) and so on.
So again it is kind of an old-school approach. I call it hot mixing.
SL: So a live output.
CW: One of these will do it, *holds up a piece of hardware with a series of buttons and faders*. So this is like a clip launcher. It is kind of the same principle as Dub music, right? You've got a mixing desk and all the channels have got something going on, and you're working the desk. And there are happy accidents that occur.
I like the fact that these things occur, as opposed to me going, Hmmmm, that is exactly what is going to happen. I am not interested in that… So it is another form of liveliness in itself.
SL: And would you consider that sort of acceptance of the unexpected to be related to your approach to working in the world, and being hopeful or open to the unexpected as you make the recordings? Is that openness something that you're trying to bring back into the compositional process, as you're working with the recordings and composing?
CW: Yep, totally.
I got really tired of putting too much pressure on the situation. I was like, Oh my god, I'm killing my baby here. And, you know, you end up being paralyzed by this pressure you’ve put on yourself, and that's just silly!
So, my whole thing is to work quite fast as well. Not that the quality is compromised, but I guess after many years of practice, I am capable of just trusting myself to go ahead with it, you know?
SL: And it sounds like you haven't always worked like that?
Where did that way of working come from, do you think?
CW: Nah. Nah.
It comes from practice, you know? Like anything, the more you do it, the more it just makes sense.
SL: And are there any conditions, environmental conditions, whether that be the room you're in, the equipment that you have access to, that are important to your ability to your ability to be working?
I've always had a space of sorts. Whether it be a bedroom scenario back in the day, or a studio off domestic site, or what I have now – it is all very serious these days. But even now it's not a very big space. I don't need much space at all. I'm not one for a shit-tonne of gear, either. I used to be, 'cause I was like, Ohh, goodie! But just really kind of paring it back. Everything needs to be portable, so everything I own has a hard-case.
SL: And has there, over time, and including now, ever been pieces of equipment that have been especially significant?
RD: The minidisc recorder! Hell yeah!
SL And what is it about the minidisc recorder? Is it the microphone in it? Or the nature of the recording method? Or…?
CW: Well… It was the first thing you could get, outside of a tape recorder, that you could record near CD-quality. I think it is 11-bits. And I was like, OH MY GOD! And I borrowed one off of a friend. This little kind of square that had these little discs. I've still got all of them! It's all archived. That box up there, *gestures*, is full of minidisc recordings.
SL: They're amazing, the little minidisc boxes!
CW: You know, there's also the cassette boxes, *rummages*, and I've got a fucking shit-tonne of those! And then there are more with four-track and you know… It's all up there.
But the minidisc recorder, you could record something, and it was, Wow! It was really clear… -ish! *laughs* And it was in stereo with this little microphone, and you could loop it! You could loop it on the player!
Prior to that I was making tape loops! I had managed to score a shitty Sony quarter-inch, James Bond looking thing, from an Op Shop. And one channel went and that sort of stuff.
SL: A reel-to-reel machine?
CW: Yeah, reel-to-reel.
I'd re-record shit onto tape and then splice it to make loops, trying to make sense of loops that way. And then the minidisc recorder came in and I was like, Wow, I don't need to have this big hulking thing that is always overheating, or spend ages making tape loops. You could just do it with a button! Just hit 'Loop1', and it was like, Wow! I can make a loop! *laughs*
SL: So that’s one significant piece of equipment, the minidisc player, which allowed you to make loops in a less cumbersome way, right?
SL: Was there…
I am just trying to piece it together in time. So as a boy you start out, and you want to be working with sounds from the world, you want to slow them down, speed them up, that sort of thing. And then after a point you're interested in working with loops so you buy a reel-to-reel machine and start splicing tape. And presumably by that point you are aware that people, composers, have been doing that…
How old were you at that point? A young man? Still a boy?
CW: When I was first doing the loops with tape?
CW: Aaaaha, 13?
Yeah, I figured it out. I was like, Hang on a minute! I was in the dark, I really was!
SL: And then you get the minidisc player, which makes it all much easier. But at this point you've already been working with and manipulating audio, and in a sense there is already a kind of puritanical approach developing, even at this point while your approach is still naive and motivated by curiosity… I mean you're working with tape machines which are kind of, I dunno, romantic… They’re analog and they have their own aesthetics and set of associations attached to them.
At what point did your sensibility sort of shift, towards, Okay, now it's about 'Hands Off', 'Whatever Happens Happens', 'I'm not so interested in manipulations in the studio, as a rule'?
I mean, I know you still employ studio manipulations compositionally…
SL: …but was there a point where your sensibility kind of shifted and a more disciplined approach, with those sets of rules, became interesting? Or was it more gradual, and just over time your approach changed; This isn't so interesting to me anymore, now I am more interested in this instead?
CW: I think I just kind of combine things as they occur. Like they're discoveries that are just added to the pallet. Like, I still go back to the tape-loop sometimes. That tape machine is up there *gestures to the top shelf*. It's still there, and it is really clunky! But there are times when you really like that fidelity, so you keep it. I've got all my old laptops! They're all up there! *gestures to another shelf*. So, I keep everything! And they all operate! There's years and years of shit up there.
SL: You've had some good luck, I think, with your equipment!
CW: Yeah, I'm really pedantic. Like this place is completely dust-free, dehumidified…
CW: …you name it. Everything is in a hard-case. Everything has this stuff in it *holds up silica packets*, silica, all that shit. I keep everything: there are boxes of hard drives, all sorts of shit. *laughs*
SL: How did you become interested in moving material between mediums, translating audio into a visual form, and visual material back into audio?
Did that relate to the field recording practice at all? Or was it sort of parallel and things eventually came together somehow?
CW: You mean with the visual practice?
CW: That was kinda weird – they were completely separate for quite a while.
So, I had the sound thing going on for a while, and I'd started getting into instruments, and on the other side I was doing my kind of visual stuff, like painting, Ughhhh. I went to art school to do painting in about '93? '94? So I went there and then basically after a year I was like, I'm fuuuucking sick of this shit!, in terms of painting. And I hadn't seen sound being used in a gallery context before, just because being in New Zealand or whatever. And again, sort of always being in the dark a bit. *laughs* And seeing Christian Marclay’s Tape Fall, which was part of a show here, at Auckland City Art Gallery. And I was like, FUCK! I can use my gear to put something across in terms of an idea? I can use technology to do visual art practice as well?! And that is where it became symbiotic.
I had to be in the print department for that to happen, because I went through painting, and I was like, Fuck that. Too smelly. Too yucky. Ummm, sculpture, I found that pointless. *laughs* I did some film with Super 8, and I did enjoy that, but the process was laborious, and I was like, Ahhh, it looks like hippy stuff. And then there was printmaking… And I was like, Hang on a minute. I love records, right? They're a print! And then I started to do screen prints, literally inking up records and screen printing them, putting them through a press and stuff like that. And I was like, Okay… making a record…
SL: And then you're thinking about editions, and repetition, and fidelity…?
CW: I was like, Right! Okay! It was a eureka moment: I will make records, 'cause I'm in the print department.
And there was no arguing with me! They were like, What the fuck? And I was like, Yeah, you can't argue with it, right?! And this is art school! Surely this is the only place, in this department, at least. And there was this really great tutor there, and she was like, Just go for it! So out comes the tape machines, and out comes the tape loops. And suddenly I'm doing hard-core punk, negative-approach loops, backwards on two tape machines in a dingy space.
I was in heaven!
SL: And to what degree were you interested in using, whatever the means were – tape machine or making prints – to communicate something that wasn't directly related to the medium? You know, concepts?
CW: You know I quite like the idea of the medium feeding back on itself.
So I did this one loop thing which wasn't actually tape it was photographs. So I made a photograph loop, and just sliced photographs. And all that you'd hear through the tape machine was, *imitates machine* Thissssthissshits, and then it'd go, *CLICK*, over a splice. But it was enough, in terms of a suggestion, to communicate that I was playing images.
So that's where that started… That was '95 or so, I think. And that was when all the techno stuff started happening as well. But that is a different story! *laughs*
SL: Well, I sort of imagine that while all these things all kind of bubbling away on their own trajectories, that there would have been some, what do they call it… Cross-talk?
CW: Oh absolutely.
SL: You're thinking about environments, and then you're thinking about, you know, making spaces and atmospheres, and installations, and so on and so on. I can totally see a link from installation work to techno, in the sense that the atmosphere of a club is so total, and so intrinsically related to the sound and light.
CW: Well, I think with the techno thing, repetition was really kind of the clincher there. You know, that sort of mechanical repetition – I loved it! A sort of rhythm within something. In this case it was drum machines or synthesizer-sequencers, or some kind of sampler that’s being repeated. But then I applied that to field recordings. I mean there are rhythms out there already. There's EMFs, there are mechanical sounds from construction sites, traffic, all sorts, everywhere.
Once you open up to that way of thinking, it's everywhere! It's like, Right, it's at my fingertips, I don't have to go anywhere, it's right there. That's the beauty of it!
SL: So, you’ve started to work. You've gone to art school. You're thinking about presenting in a gallery context.
Do you remember at what point you started being interested in presenting your work live? At what point, was it prior to that, or after, or around the same time as that, that you started performing as a musician?
CW: Yeah, it was around the same time. And so again it's sort of like, I was making visual stuff, which was gallery-based, and I wasn't physically present to actually perform the works, and wasn’t actually operating the equipment in front of people, and meeting Richard Francis was a part of that shift toward performing as well. He and I were on the same boat.
Before I even met Richard he was flatting with some friends of mine who were also at art school, and they were like, You should meet Richard, he plays guitar and he plays whatever he likes, man! Which meant absolute noise! And I was like, Cooooool!, 'cause everyone else I'd met who played guitar were real lame-arse, in terms of like, playing chords and scales! And I wasn't interested in that at all… In fact, when my parents asked if I wanted to have any form of music lessons, whether it be piano or drums or anything, I refused, because I just wanted to have my own language. I didn't want to learn what everyone else knew. *laughs* I'm actually slowly starting to do that now with guitar after 20-odd years of playing, but that's something else. Mainly Thrassssh… *laughs*
So yeah, after meeting Richard I was like, Fuck! There's someone else! I hadn't met Rosy Parlane or anyone else at that stage, so it was just Richard. And that's when the tape-trading started. And we were swapping tapes.
SL: Tapes of your own material, or other stuff?
CW: Yep, our own shitty recordings. Four-track tape.
Oh yeah, the four-track came before minidisc by the way. It was still cassette. The minidisc came later. That was '99, the mini disc.
And then Richard moved to Dunedin, and then, basically, we became pen-pals. *laughs* This is all pre-internet! And we’d send things to and fro in the post, and he ended up so broke-arse that when we'd send packages we would keep scrubbing out the previous postmark and re-writing the address so it became covered completely. So you needed a good box!
SL: And that was to save the stamp?
CW: Yeah! *laughs*
CW: So! Broke! When I first went around to Richard's place, all he would eat was fried onions! I was like, Fucking hell, man!
And then Richard had another perspective on using field recordings. He had a kind of noisier approach, and I was kind of like, Ohhh, this has got some kind of nasty dirge to it; it kind of sounds like guitar, but not really…sorta, you know… It had a dirge to it. And he had that kind of mechanical repetition thing going on. So yeah, I can see that. But I was more interested in real looooong loops, not short, tight, cyclic things. Until later. But yeah, realllllly long, really really long.
SL: And did you and Richard start performing together, or collaborating? Or was it always just bouncing tapes up and down the country?
CW: Collaborating, yeah.
And he told me all about Peter King and all that sort of stuff. And we did a split 7”, and then that's when Richard went over to Japan and started the label 20City, and started releasing other people including me and himself. And yeah, then that's when he was performing and releasing music as Eso Steel.
So collaborating, performing together, yeah. We've performed together many times, but not for a while.
SL: And you were also working as a sound engineer, around that time, I'd guess?
Or was that slightly after that time?
CW: I went to SAE – School of Audio Engineering – after art school.
CW: Why? Because I was wanting something to fall back on, as well as to master my craft, so it was a double edged thing.
SL: Was it a good experience for you at SAE?
CW: It was kind of what I expected. *laughs*
It wasn't as creative as I hoped it would be. You know, I was kind of used to being a studio environment where you experiment and let things occur, and SAE was very kind of programmed out, and stuff was very much directed towards recording bands. I think one of the lecturers played in The Herbs. They taught us about MIDI. ProTools was just this kind of annoying thing on the side. It was mainly tape. Mainly. All analog. And bands. And I was like, Fuck!
I ended up recording… *laughs* We called ourselves 'Falcon Crest'! *laughs* And it was like krautrock. Like, vrrrormmmmshhhh. And we put in some wave sounds and shit, blah blah blah… *laughs* Lazy! *laughs* And then after that I did some really lousy engineering jobs over the next few years, recording, you know, bad jazz bands, doing live sound, doing sound post-production for really shitty videos for some company or whatever. Just odd-jobs here and there. Documentary soundtracks. All sorts.
Cutting my teeth…
SL: And is it fair to say that these experiences never really fed back into your creative activities? Or were there parts of it that you could benefit from, despite working in these otherwise uninspiring contexts?
CW: Well you said it: it was uninspiring. And I was like, Where was that place where I am feeling that way? It was the university context.
And so I had the epiphany of doing my Masters degree at Elam – School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland – when the Intermedia department was still running under Phil Dadson. And you know, I was quite adamant about doing it, because it was a way of getting back into and nurturing the practice, and it gave me the ability to use resources fairly cheaply, and access to people I could talk to about my work with, and a chance to reactivate my stuff and not do lame-arse shit anymore. I was working all the way though, as well. You know, being a chef, and doing other odd-jobs, blah blah blah.
And yeah, I spent many a moon in the sound studio beneath the Elam lecture theatre.
SL: And was that a good time? Being back at the university?
CW: Yeah, totally!
SL: That Intermedia department has such a legacy attached to it now. I mean, people who went through while Phil was still there speak of their experience so fondly, and people lament that it is no longer there, which, I mean, looking at the state of things, especially at the Auckland University, seems sadly unsurprising…
CW: I think I can be quite happy to say that I have landed in a space like that now, in terms of what I do for a job. It is just called something different!
But yeah, Richard and I would spend quite a lot of time in that studio, night time sessions, of course! No disruptions! We'd spend hours locked in that studio.
SL: And Richard wasn't at the art school, was he?
CW: No. No. But we'd been working together. We were making stuff together. So we'd be doing 'hot mixes' in the studio with CD players looping. Lots of CD players. That was when the porta-CD was the new thing. CDrs, or CDrws if you were really cheap! Rewritable! Fuck! *laughs*. So the advent of the CDr, Whooo, shit! I can make CDs!
SL: And so, okay, you're back in the university system. You're back sort of feeling that you’re in an inspiring context, and that there are supportive people around you and that you have access to some interesting spaces and equipment…
SL: …and what sort of work were you making?
You were with Richard making 'hot mixes' – it's fair to call it music, yeah?
SL: What sort of place was your field recording practice holding? Going out and taking material from the world – where was that sitting at that point?
CW: Ahhh, well that is a constant process. So that would be involved in what Richard and I were doing, or what I was doing.
There was always an element of field recordings in what we were producing. So there would be little snippets or atmospheres of a location used as a bed or as an introduction to something, or a segue from something to something else. So there was always this meeting point between electronics and field recording, a space where electronics met field recordings…
SL: And you've already got your archive building up at this point?
If it is easy enough to articulate, how do you organize your archive? Is it organized sort of temporally, or is organized texturally?
CW: It is organized literally!
SL: Literally? Okay?
CW: Yeah, so if i've got field recordings or recordings of aircraft, that goes is the 'Aircraft' folder *laughs*
SL: Makes sense!
CW: It's really pragmatic!
There are folders called 'Industrial Recordings', or 'Nature Recordings', and there's 'City Recordings', 'Car Recordings'. It is very literal because it is so massive that I need to be literal. I can't be abstracting, calling things 'This and that over the moon.2', 'cause it's not going to make sense. And I learned that from working in the professional realm, I guess, working with meta-data and all that sort of stuff. If things are labeled descriptively, you can dial things up really fast when an idea comes to mind as opposed to going, What did I call that thing which was actually just a recording of that?
That is another one of the big rules, Be literal with titles, of the recordings at least – compositions can be called something else, of course.
SL: Sure, sure.
And at what point do you start working with the Field Recording Group? And perhaps you could explain a little about how that came about?
I initially was working with Jim, Jim Speers, as his sound clean up guy, 'cause he started getting into video works (coming from sculpture). And yeah, he wanted to get into making kinda abstract documentaries.
There was a new thing in town called an 'HD Video Camera'. *laughs* And a lot of Elam staff were all over it at that time. It was the ceramics of that moment, you know? *laughs* And Jim was all kind of new to it. And, you know, video is another part of what I do, and after years of working with that medium I knew how to work with that shit too. So he employed me to first of all clean up his shitty sound, or to actually make sound that was better for these video works he was producing.
And then he had this big idea to do this documentary in China. And he's like, Do you want to help me?
SL: This was in the Beijing-area, yeah?
CW: Ahh, Shanghai, yeah, the Yangtze Delta.
So yeah, Jim paid me to basically tag along, film and sound-record, for this project that was about the barges. And that then eventuated again into another manifestation where the group was not just Jim and I. It was Jim, myself, a Chinese artist Li Xiaofei, and Guo Zixuan and Tu Rapana Neill as a team to shoot this documentary about life on these barges. So our first trip was the catalyst to go into the main documentary project.
And my role with that second iteration of the project was purely sound. So rather than doing sound and camera, which is a pain in the arse, I just focused on sound and sound recording, sound post-production and sound scoring, so the whole thing in terms of sound.
SL: I saw a presentation of the – I'm not sure if it was works the first trip or the second trip or a combination of the two – at ST PAUL St Gallery, and it was one of things that really got me thinking about this referential vs. abstracted kind of spectrum that is in play when one works within an environment or with a set of places.
And yeah, it's a little bit poetic, but otherwise it is a very stark, realistic portrait of these people and places, and of the activities that take place there…
SL: …so talking with you know, and you telling me about this set of aesthetic criteria that you're interested in, at least interested in when you're working in a place, it makes total sense to me. And it seems like a – I mean I'm not sure to what extent you feel that The Field Recording Group project is really close to your personal work, in that it is a collaborative group and I don't know how collaborative it ends up being with three or four or five people involved – but, ummmm…
CW: Yeah, I mean totally.
It is very horizontal, in terms of the collaborative thing. Everyone is there for a reason.
SL: And are you all – 'cause I know at the presentation I saw at ST PAUL St, some works were credited to you, and some were credited to the other artists – when you're over there, are you all working together?
I mean I know you’re there as a group, but perhaps you are splintering off and doing your own kind of thing, I'm interested in this part, or that guy, or whatever it is that may be slightly different to the overarching project?
CW: Yeah, so I always had my 'B-rig' on the side. I'm always doing something like that. If I’m doing something, I've always got something on the side going as well. It's like the hotel recordings, right? I don't just sit in my room and watch fucking TV, I turn it into a studio! I’m interested in the streets, everything.
If I'm there, I'll be recording it in some kind of way.
So yeah, we're all individual artists as well, and then coming together to be a collective to do something together, unilaterally. And you know, my perspective was my own, compared to everybody else who had their own perspective as well. And my outlook on it was, well, to be quite frank it was very bleak. And I wanted to kind of portray that in the sound but also with the works that I made on the side, as well. And yeah, using those rules as well.
So one of the works I made during that trip was using all of the cutting room floor stuff that was not used by the other artists. Each clip is sub-20 seconds, and the work goes for 45minutes. And it's to do with attention span, so anything beyond 20 seconds, you go, Huuuuh?, and basically every clip will get you to just before that moment, and then with the cut you're back in, and then with the next cut you're back in again, and again, and again, and all of a sudden you're there for a really long period of time without realizing it.
SL: And was it an enjoyable way to work for you? With a group of other artists? 'Cause, I mean, I think for a lot of people field recording is quite a solitary pursuit, usually.
CW: It was fucking annoying to be honest! 'cause you're together for a month, and no matter how many times I said, If you see me with headphones on and my recorder pointing at something, I'm not scratching my bum, nor am I interested in a conversation! It's like me stepping in front of your lens when you're filming. In fact that sonic frame is much much bigger – it's omni-spheric; everywhere! So whatever you say, I will pick it up.
So, ahh, yeah, I had to do this a lot, *finger to lips*, which is kind of weird. I felt, you know, a bit patronizing doing that… *laughs*
SL: *laughs* … it's better than this one, *middle finger*…
CW: *laughs* No I never did that. It didn't get that far. I did that one to other people. People don't care anyway, but that's something else! I do that one to people in the street.
Anyway, grrrrrrr. Yeah, so, I'd have to walk away, ages! I'd be like, I'm going over there to collect. But then we'd have to do sync-sound as well, so, *laughs*, I'd try with these guys to get, you know, a synchronized recording happening, and I’d say, The only way we're going to do it, 'cause we're in the cheap seats here, is for you to, *clicks fingers*, in front of the camera, and with the on-board microphones and then I can sync it later. And no one could click their fingers! *laughs*
SL: *laughs* That's unfortunate!
CW: Yeah, so I said, Okay, whistle! And they couldn't whistle either! *laughs*
So a bit of a nightmare, really. I mean, granted, we're all sort of, like, somewhat amateur about it, too, in terms of the process. So we're doing a lot of learning on the way, which I am totally up for.
I've never liked the idea of knowing everything. I think it's silly.
SL: What makes for an inspiring kind of place, for you? What is it that is of interest to you when you're out there? What makes a series of recordings memorable?
CW: Sense of perspective.
So, what I’ve noticed happening, almost unconsciously, with the photography that I am doing at the moment, is that it has a big sense of a perspective. So you can see this distant horizon. And I'm interested in these large scales and big spaces with the field recordings as well. Not like halls or warehouses, but large outdoor spaces. So with the field recordings, there will be a large space of field where there are lots of things occupying this expansive, shifting acoustic frame. Like an industrial environment, for example, where you can hear things banging away kilometers away. And that sense of scale and distance gives you a sense of perspective on who you are in that world, which, ultimately, is relatively insignificant in the scheme of things.
SL: So you’re interested in this thing or that thing, but as a means to articulate what it is to occupy spaces as a listening entity; as a human?
CW: Yep, it is a very human approach.
A good example are some of the recordings I made in Shanghai. Looooong recordings of walking down these incredibly long roads in the industrial estates in the middle of the night, and just walking with my recorder – and you can hear me, *imitates walking sounds* ssccchhk scccchk – and I've just got the recorder, holding it like that, *gestures holding the recorder in front of him*, for ages. And there's like, trucks and shit going by, there's like, radios and TVs, people talking, all this sort of stuff occurring just naturally. And I can't foresee any of it. And it's a symphony.
SL: And as you make that sort of recording, is the ultimate goal to bring back and to present that large perspective for an audience? Or is it more to occupy it yourself, and then to meditate on it and then, you know, do something else with the feeling?
CW: I think it is almost like photographs, for me.
The recordings themselves are kind of nostalgic things. Memories. Ahhh, but in terms of, like, putting it into an audience-based context – a gallery work, or whatever – I guess it’s aiming to put the listener into that environment. And they can construe whatever they want from it, in terms of what is happening. But it is that sense of, I guess, being transported into a different environment just through sound. So no visual aids or anything.
And it’s also about traversing spaces, almost seamlessly. So going from one context, say inside, an interior, a small box-y kind of room, and then traversing into a large open space almost seamlessly, kind of like a dreamlike transition. So it's kind of journeying.
Most of my compositions are about twenty minutes, partly because it is the length of a side of a record, but again that is also the attention-span thing. This Rule of twenty is really important. And within that twenty minutes there are a number of moments of time for you to go through… It doesn't have a chronological journey, but it does often happen to be that way because you're traversing in a linear sense.
But I'm constructing a journey, basically.
Lots of my recordings are based on this thing, again, *holds up a sampler*. This thing really kind of is the field recording live-tool. So basically every clip is loaded with field recordings. Most of them are unadulterated…
SL: …it's eight channels? And then there are up to ten clips per channel?
So you can have eight sounds going simultaneously. Well, you can go beyond that. But I quite like just the eight-grid. I don't like to go any further, 'cause things disappear, so to speak. So that's the rule for that machine, Work within the eight-grid, although I like to leave a few slots open which allows me the flexibility to swap things around while working on a recording or mix.
And that's how I make my twenty minute compositions. So I'm instinctively mixing sounds in and out, working with my own attention-span or impatience.
SL: And aside from being bogged down with a tonne of marking at the moment, what are you working on at the moment, in particular with field recording stuff?
CW: Well, you would have heard some of that MENACE stuff?
CW: So that's field recordings, but fully distorted, beyond the point of recognition, with feedback and stuff, stitched together to make blackened noise. That was actually my original plan with some of the China material. That was how deeply affected I was just being in that context – the sort of wastelands… And that was all unleashed recently, which was a few years after being there. But the China library is big enough to service a number of projects. And that MENACE project traverses, like, twenty years of, like, pure noise stuff. Source material for MENACE is field recordings and electronics blasted to pieces through distortion and is an aggressive treatment of material. That project has come about from sonically articulating a world in peril. It's like my ‘bad mood music’ or when I’m feeling fucked off about the world. It's a comment on the state of things and a pressure release at the same time
I'm also working on my more minimal stuff, and I've got the album coming out on Unfathomless, of the field recording work I did in South Africa. It’s called Raaswater, which was one of the places I visited during the residency. Essentially it's a massive river where in the rainy season water has been cascading over these granite boulders for billions of years. It was the dry season when I was there, so I had the fortunate ability to walk across the rocks which was amazing.
And then there's the techno stuff, of course, Go Nuclear, which is another kettle of fish. And then the abstract Black Metal noise stuff. So a wide rage! Going from ambient all the way through to kind of beat-oriented, to total fucking distorted carnage. *laughs*
SL: The Raaswater release is composed of material you recorded during the Sonic Mmabolela Sound Composers Residency that Francisco Lopez organises and leads, right? I have looked at that residency a number of times (and to be honest I am very jealous that you went there)!
Could you elaborate a little on what your time there was like?
CW: When I was initially invited to participate in 2018, I was in two minds about going. I discussed it with my wife who quickly proceeded to tell me that this residency is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I would be an idiot to not go. It was at that point I was 100% on board.
After months of visa paperwork and being a pin cushion from the amount of vaccines that were required for me to even set foot in South Africa, I finally found myself travelling to Johannesburg to join the international group of ten artists who were also taking part in the residency. From Johannesburg we all traveled in a small van 17-hour journey north to the Mmabolela Reserve, in the Limpopo province of South Africa, right at the border with Botswana, which was the base for this two week long ultimate field recording adventure. The residency was immaculately directed by Francisco Lopez and partner Barbara Ellison who programmed an intensive fortnight of recording, workshops, seminars, and deep listening.
I spent hours exploring, recording and listening in a vast terrain that was teaming with life and death. As the heat is so extreme, we would be active pre-dawn until 11am, then from 3pm - 6pm, and again from 8pm - 11pm. What was also intense, in general, was the danger element. We all had to sign a ‘in case of death’ form once we got there as the environment itself is full of deadly insects, snakes, animals, plants, etcetera, and with no internet at all (we left that shit behind the moment we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn), there would be zero means of contacting help if something were to have gone wrong. So that was all a bit freaky. I tried communicating to my wife & kids via the stars, but that didn’t work out. I resorted to writing in a small notebook to track my adventures that I would later share as readable stories once (if) I returned.
Between the times we were out recording locations as a group we would rest, hangout, eat and drink, produce work and do presentations. It was really great to do a performance in the desert as well along with a few of the participants and Francisco. The amount of material and the experiences I gained from being on Sonic Mmabolela has been significant on many levels, both personally and creatively.
But yeah, one output from that trip is titled Raaswater, and it is set to be released on the Belgian label, Unfathomless. That work encapsulates the sonic experience of the residency in 11 compositions made from the material I recorded. In the summer, Raaswater is a completely dry section of the Limpopo river consisting of a terrain of huge granite rocks covered with dried algae, and it was one of the most memorable locations we recorded at. In the rainy season it becomes an intense water rapid section. Raaswater translates as noisy water and is on the border of South Africa and Botswana. It was incredible being there. Super eerie, with strange acoustics and super dangerous with the likes of cheetah, scorpions, snakes, baboons and the threat of rogue border patrols all very eager to take a piece of me. Raaswater, for me, really does sum up the whole residency in terms of experience and intensity. It’s not for the faint of heart and I fucking loved it!