di Luisa Santacesaria e Giulia Sarno
[British media artist and experimental musician Stephen Cornford performed in Florence for Tempo Reale’s TRK. Sound Club at Galleria Frittelli Arte Contemporanea on October 20th 2017. We asked him a few questions. Photos © Giulia Sarno.]
Please tell us about your musical background, to start with.
Well, I don’t really have any musical background. I trained as an artist, I did a degree in sculpture, and a second degree in time-based art, and it was during my MA that I started working with sound. I was at a college where there was a music department and an art department, and I was working in between the two, making sound installations and sound performances, using instruments such as grand pianos, timpani drums… because they had them there. So I have no classical training, I can’t really play any instrument at all, but I guess I’ve got a real interest in approaching those things from an unskilled background and just seeing what I can do with it, without having any kind of preconceived notion of what the right thing to do is. For example, at that time I was making the piano into a feedback instrument so I could make long drone sounds with the piano, or I was making installations with string instruments, that would be played physically by motors or by something mechanical. So I was always looking at instruments and thinking “How can I play this without having to know how to play it?”, and “How does approaching this instrument from that perspective change the possibilities of the instrument, and the possibility of music?”. More recently I have taken that approach to different technologies, I guess.
Tell us more about Electrocardiograph of a Cathode Ray Tube, the work you are going to perform tonight.
The piece is for two cathode ray tube TVs, that I am amplifying with brainwave sensors. So I bought – you can buy them on eBay now – two ECG pick-ups and I am using them to amplify the televisions, and I am sending the televisions a very simple audio source (an oscillator), but I am sending it into the video input of the TV, and then I am picking up the electromagnetic emissions from the TV screen. This sounds mostly the same as the oscillator, but there is also a lot of noise. So in a way it’s like using the TV as an audio effect. But I was also interested in just this gesture of taking something which is used to monitor us – a brainwave pick-up – and trying to monitor a technological object with that, to see if it has a heartbeat, or a brainwave, how it corresponds to these ideas of energy that we have as biological things. And then there is also an element of composition which I bring to that: I have chosen to do something that is largely quite static, there’s only really two changes in 40 minutes, so it’s really about spending a long time listening to the same thing, or to something which is changing really slightly, and that’s just an aesthetic preference I guess.
LS / Do you interact with the sound?
Yes, the main thing I can do is I can change the frequency that is going into the TV. And then I can also feed the signal from the brainwave monitors back into the TV – that I use quite a lot. But most of the time I am doing as little as possibile. I am trying to find systems where I can switch it on and leave it, and it will do something of its own accord, which I hope is enough to keep people interested.
LS / So it’s an ongoing process…
Yes, and actually with a slightly more complex synthesiser it could really just generate itself for quite a long time, but at the moment it’s a very rudimentary system. You can wire it up to really just change of its own accord, and I could just walk out, and it would do something for 40 minutes, but in my experience people want to watch somebody next to it…
GS / That’s really interesting actually, because I have been thinking a lot these days about the idea of authenticity in performance, which is assured by the physical presence of the performer in person, which might actually not do anything, but the bare fact that he is there gives authenticity to the work…
Yes … or gives it an intention, like human intention: “I am meaning for this to happen, it’s not just random”.
So I would try to do as little as possible, which is a bit of a challenge for me as a performer, but it’s quite a nice challenge. And also I am faced away from the audience, so that precludes interaction in a traditional sense, like eye-to-eye contact or any sense of what’s going on with the audience.
GS / Can you feel the audience’s response in any way?
It’s difficult to tell… Yes, sometimes I think I can feel it, but sometimes I am also aware it might be my anxiety that I am projecting. I guess one of the reasons that I do very little is that I don’t really like performing. I prefer not to be in the work, but some of the pieces I make I have to be in because otherwise they wouldn’t change at all.
[UPDATE: In an email after the performance, Stephen wrote: “By the way I definitely can’t feel how the audience is responding with my back turned, I was really surprised when I turned around and they had clearly liked it.”]
LS / What brought you to this kind of work? You work a lot with sound installations, which are also concert pieces: so you are basically exploring the borders between these two musical forms.
I guess that’s part of my background, having trained as an artist and making work for galleries, for twelve years or so, has always meant that I think in those terms, I think in terms of making something that is to be left for people to walk around, to see… But also even when I was doing my BA degree I was making performances, so I suppose those two things have always coexisted. Then it was more like making performance sculpture, and now it is more sound performances. I see them as part of the same exploration, and I usually find a way of using it as a performance or using it as an installation. You know, sometimes people want me to come and perform, and I am working on an installation, so I will just re-imagine it as a performance. And actually that can be quite liberating sometimes. Usually the decision comes down to whether it maintains enough interest to just be seen on the walls on the floor or in the space of a gallery, or whether it needs me to manipulate it. So it’s often a quite practical decision.
I have this love/hate relationship with performing, because I don’t like being in the work, because the work isn’t about me: the work is about machines now actually, the work is largely about technologies. So it feels counterintuitive for me to be sitting here and people to be watching me, because it’s not about me, it’s about these two objects [points at TVs]. But there is also this really interesting difference between performances and installations: you can spend six months making an installation that can fill a certain space, and people might come in and spend like three minutes, four minutes, maybe ten minutes… Whereas if I sit here, people would spend 30, 40, 45 minutes… after 45 people might start to feel impatient… And I think that’s really interesting. I can do performances where I spend a lot less time preparing, because I want people to be seeing me making the work rather than to see something that is already complete and was made at home. So there is a lot less time that goes into making them, and a lot more time spent watching them, whereas with an installation work you spend a hell of a lot of time making it, and then no-one spends any time with it, which I find quite bizarre…
Yes, frustrating! But that’s life [laughs].
LS / I find a connection between your work and Sam Kidel’s. His works too are conceived as both installations and performances, but there is another point of proximity between you two maybe. You both conceive your work with a certain meaning, with a reason, a critique more specifically. This doesn’t happen very often in musical research today: people usually are interested in sounds, or textures, but not meaning. You also have a social perspective in your work, don’t you?
Yes, there’s almost always a reason for me trying things which is outside of what the sound is. In fact, usually the sound is the thing that comes last, you know, the process comes first. Like how can I make a process which I think misuses the technology in an interesting way, or critiques the technology in an interesting way. And then what does that produce, an image or a sound? Actually I don’t really have a value judgement of sounds, like that’s a nice sound, that’s a nasty sound, I try not to deal with that too much: I try to just let the process dictate what sounds are created. I think the fact that my work comes from ideas is due to being trained as an artist rather than being trained as a musician. If you speak to academic musicians or people who’ve been to the conservatory, they don’t think about composition as something which is creating ideas. In some ways that’s strange, because John Cage died already decades ago, he was full of ideas, mostly ideas, he didn’t give a shit about the actual sounds, and it’s surprising that this has had such a little impact on musicians now, or some musicians… I don’t really have an answer to that, but I do think it’s a difference in training. I was taught to think about what a piece of work meant. In a way, the beautiful thing about going to hear orchestral music is that it doesn’t really mean anything, it’s just the experience. And it takes you out of the world of having to think about what that critique is of, or… And that’s lovely, I love listening to music in that way, but I don’t really want to make music that’s like that. I want to make things which are trying to ask questions of society, or of technology.
The last question is about your label, Consumer Waste, which represents very well a certain contemporary British scene. What is the aesthetics behind your choices?
Samuel [Rodgers] and I started Consumer Waste in the first place because we wanted to release some of our stuff, and there wasn’t really anywhere to send it to. So we just thought to do it ourselves. And in the process of doing that we also thought “Is this a problem for our entire generation possibly? That the leading European experimental labels like Mego are there for the established generation, so if you are a big name experimental musician you can send your stuff to these places and they will publish it on 500 LPs, but there is not really anything for all the people who are under thirty or around thirty?”. So we thought “Let’s throw the door open and see if people send us stuff”. And they did, so we started releasing things. And then of course the older generations also started sending us stuff too, but that wasn’t really what we wanted to do, so we did a couple of those and then we stopped that. So essentially the intention of the label is to try to find our generation of voices, initially in Europe because that was kind of where I felt I knew and understood musicians, but also now that I traveled further we are releasing a Japanese artist and an Australian artist next. But to try to release people who don’t have a discography, who are maybe more interested in performing or making installations than they are in making records.
I guess the other important thing about the label is its title, Consumer Waste, which initially was taken from… when we where looking for the packaging, what I did was to just type in “100% post-consumer waste”, and then I could find these materials that were 100% recycled to use to pack everything, which was a political decision. But then Consumer Waste has also become a kind of means of curating the label in a way, so some things which we actively search for are people who are using what is otherwise consumer waste to make music from, people who are using old technology, or things which are otherwise rubbish, or have this bricolage aesthetics to their work.
So what is going to be your next release?
There is a Japanese guy called Veltz who works with TVs, he is based in Tokyo and he is doing a TV noise CD, and the Australian guy is called Peter Blamey, who is basically unknown in Europe as far as I can tell, and he makes very interesting work with old calculators and computer motherboards. And also we are working on a release of an Italian called Marco Lampis, who lives in Bruxelles now.