Name: Esther Venrooy
Occupation: Sound artist, composer, professor
Current release: Esther Venrooy's "Sounding Things Out - A Journey Through Music and Sound Art", a personal book about sound and her path through and with it, is available via Onomatopee.
If you enjoyed this interview with Esther Venrooy and would like to stay up to date on her work, visit her official homepage. She also has a Soundcloud account.
Now is also a good time to revisit our first Esther Venrooy interview from a while back, where she expands on a wider range of topics.
Can you talk a bit about your interest in or fascination for sound? What were early experiences which sparked it and what keeps sound interesting for you?
I remember playing a small Chinese baby piano when I was young, fascinated by the painted black keys on the white keyboard.
I remember at night when all was quiet the wind would carry a low, knocking sound of boat engines into my bedroom.
I remember the gentle sounds of my mother's hands carefully placing one by one a stack of cards on a table.
I remember the buzzing and zooming sounds of hundreds of wasps above my head in my bedroom.
I remember the soft sliding and creaking sounds of the leather couch in my Dutch grandparents' house.
I remember a simmering rice steamer in the kitchen of my Indonesian grandparents.
What's your take on how your upbringing and cultural surrounding have influenced your sonic preferences?
Of course growing up in a small town near a river in the idyllic countryside in the seventies and eighties in the Netherlands, had a huge impact on my sonic preferences.
When I compose music, I feel most of the time that I am arranging, placing and juxtaposing after images: a vessel on a river, a movie dialogue without any emotion, a lively conversation with a friend, the humming of a vending machine in school, etc. We all have a personal auditory archive in ourselves, which is not always based on real sounds, but it contains sounds charged with images, feelings, and emotions. As humans it is our lot to constantly project ourselves upon our environment. We are unable to disconnect ourselves completely from it. In the end we always take our personal archive with us, everywhere.
In my case, this became quite manifest when I began to make recordings of empty spaces. These could be all manner of spaces – they could even be as simple as a room with a chair and a table. But they would be activity-less; the only person in them would be me, and I would watch, listen and wait for something to happen.
Of course, had I read Beckett more closely, I would already have known that very often nothing happens. But intent on my task, I would try to locate that poignant moment before something might happen, and then I would press record. As I anticipated something happening, and registered that nothing was happening, I was in a constant tug-of-war with myself, and then as I would look about me I would see only myself, and my irritation, projected on the surrounding walls.
Do you see yourself as part of a tradition or historic lineage when it comes to your way of working with sound?
Yes. When I started creating electronic compositions during the years I studied and worked with the American composer, trombonist and founder of the ensemble Barton Workshop James (Jim) Fulkerson in the late nineties. He opened for me the door to the art world, teaching me the art of questioning and not so much offering solutions, or answers. Feeling liberated, I completely surrendered myself to the act of observation and constant questioning.
During our weekly meetings in this narrow and dusty electronic studio space I reflected with Jim on the works, which was a difficult process, because of my doubts and fears of being a composer. For me Jim represented the American spirit in music of pushing the boundaries between genres and disciplines and offered me in his class a safe place for progressive musical learning and thinking. There were no expectations and each new piece I created in his class was an adventure, I kept playing with sounds, shapes and structures. Almost always ending somewhere I didn't expect.
What types of sound do you personally prefer to work with? Are there sounds you reject – if so, for what reasons?
All sounds have potential, and my creative process always starts with the collection of sounds within a specific audio/visual/spatial concept. These collections of sounds are generated noises and tones, recordings of myself moving my hands, traditional instruments, voices, the environment, found footage, etc.
My works contain tonal clouds which fill the corners of the room are often combined with aural images, snippets of noise, and recordings from sound archives. I have for many years been completely devoted to the creation and organisation of sound, its juxtapositions and meanings.
Where do you find the sounds you're working with? How do you collect and organise them?
It depends on the concept of the piece.
For example, for the composition Shift Coordinate Points I worked with the archive of The Conet Project, a collection of ‘numbers station’ recordings. Numbers stations are shortwave radio stations broadcasting voices on different frequencies. The voices tirelessly recite seemingly random series of numbers and phonetic letters. Aside from the German, French, Swedish, Russian, American and British voices, there are transmissions of morse codes, endless melodies and different types of noise.
To whom these voices belong, and for whom these cryptic messages are meant is unclear. The messages are irreversibly encrypted, their contents unintelligible to anyone but the corresponding receiver. Radio amateurs and fanatics who have been monitoring the phenomenon for many years are convinced that the stations are operated by intelligence and secret services worldwide, as a means of dispatching coordinates and assignments to their operatives abroad.
And during the creative process for the sound installation of Refrakt, I remember I was sitting in the stairwell staring into the empty corridor, wondering what kind of sounds would ‘fit’ in a staircase. There was no sound archive yet, and I had no idea what sounds I wanted to use. After spending an hour alone in the stairwell, I heard mostly environmental sounds: humming of buses, footsteps of passers-by and soft muttering sounds of people talking. Every now and then, I perceived someone moving through the stairwell, opening and closing a door. The percussive sound of a door’s latch bolt falling back into place caused a ‘shock wave’ or sonic movement through the stairwell. It not only filled the space, but aurally visualised it. The architecture responded, as if it were in conversation with the sound. I decided to use percussive attacks which would illuminate the space.
Some artists use sounds as a means for emotional self-expression, others take a more conceptual approach or want to present intriguing sound matter. How would you characterise your own goals and motivations in this regard?
In my practice I follow in the footsteps of conceptual artists and composers by using strategies, systems and rules to come to a work of art.
However, it is not the concept, but ‘feelings’ which are the most important aspect of my work. My works are often conceived out of a desire or urgency to work with sound. The design process does not always follow an intuitive path, but is an interaction between feelings, desires and reason, or in most cases common sense. Nor is it a linear process in which each action is part of a logical sequence. When I install a sound, audiovisual work or drawing in a space, it is a constant process of rethinking, reworking and rearranging the visual and auditory elements,without of course losing sight of the initial thought.
Sound is often a point of departure, from which I move towards a medium, shaping the work in a space. For the visual and auditory to come together and form an entity, it is important for me to open myself to the three fields at the same time: sound, medium and space.
From the point of view of your creative process, how do you work with sounds?
The way I create compositions is similar to the way that films are edited. Time is a line.
In the beginning my compositions tended to be fragmentary; later I became more concerned with place in the musical space, synthesising sounds or elements coming from an entirely different scene. In this auditory environment I am connecting these isolated, unconnected sounds. Very slowly and with great precision, I weave together sounds that are not necessarily meant to be musical.
Within the compositional process I keep an eye on the horizontal and vertical of the soundscape, and the linear aspect becomes more important during the performance. I am constantly aware of the fact that I have an audience, which is passive and receptive. For months I'll have been at the centre of an aural image, and my intention with a performance is to step out of it and, like a magician, place the audience where I myself have been standing until then. And because I am not in the centre of the experience, I use a visual and conceptual representation of the piece, which follows the concept of time as a line.