Name: Daniel Hignell AKA Distant Animals
Occupation: Composer/Doctor of Musical Composition/Sound Artist
Current Release: Lines on Hallow Ground
Recommendations: Siavash Amini – Tar. In many ways, this album is far busier that most similar albums I enjoy, so much so that it often feels closer to a more traditional classical composition than the drone, ambient or noise that its sound world would suggest. Tar is a stunning example of the compositional tension between restraint and evolution - little seems to be happening throughout much of the album, despite a constantly shifting sound-world. No moment ever feels lazy, or drawn out, yet every sound is provided with the time it needs to test and explore its timbral, rhythmic, and harmonic relationships to the fullest. / Mocksim – Contra-invention. Beautiful on so many level’s, Mocksim’s work has a wonderful habit of simultaneously mocking and encapsulating the mundanity of modern life. Contra-invention entertains so many emotions at once, without ever being remotely earnest or Melo-dramatic. The faces of the wardens resolutely photographing themselves by accident, the ham-fisted attempts of the artist to insert himself into the frame, and the sanctity that is bestowed upon such functional images by their appropriation and re-imagining as a signifier of both the most boring aspects of the everyday and the omnipresence of technological infringement, is as profound as it is pointless.
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Daniel you can find out more about his work at www.distantanimals.com
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I first started playing music when I was 14 – my brother was forming a hardcore punk band and needed a singer. I can recall almost nothing about the band now, except that we were called ‘Bubblegum Fury’ and played one show, at a friend’s birthday party. As naïve as my musical endeavours were back then, I am still enthralled by the basic premise of much of the 80’s and 90’s punk scene. Growing up listening to, and emulating, bands like The Dead Kennedys and Operation Ivy, there was a very real belief that music could change the world. It wasn’t until I went to university nearly a decade later that I discovered a whole new kind of punk, in the form of the classical avant-garde. Watching John Cage’s ‘Water walk’, reading Mauricio Kagel’s ‘Staatstheater’, or exploring La Monte Young’s Fluxus work, I was once more struck by the sheer insolence, the violence, of a form of art that thought it too could change the world – but this time with compositional rigour replacing teenage angst.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I have always actively disliked the majority of music I have heard. When I was younger, I wanted to experiment precisely because I didn’t like what I was already hearing. I couldn’t articulate it properly back then, but there always seemed to be a tension between craft and originality - the objectively ’better’ an artist got, the less interesting the work they produced. Though this is a somewhat simplistic position, it encouraged me to embrace failure as a truly creative force, prioritising attempts and ideas beyond my ability over more successful emulations of existing techniques. I have somewhat mellowed with age, no doubt. Having spent over a decade in academia I have explored and recreated the work of other composers as a means of extending my abilities. Artists such as La Monte Young, Max Neuhaus, Richard Long, and Joseph Beuys have all featured heavily in my practice, and have each served to help me articulate my own voice – I still regularly perform a number of performance art pieces that are entirely indebted to Beuys, though this is not because I see value in recreating a particular aesthetic, but that the underlying questions posed by his work still seem important to explore.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Initially, I always struggled to make what I wanted to happen happen, without knowing how to do it. I Never had a circle of friends doing similar work, so would often try things and just see what happened. Working with no money - I was a security guard on minimum wage, then I was a student - the challenge was to create interesting, socially-engaging compositions with limited materials. As such I became interested in consumer electronic devices, and sculptural objects taken from the everyday, rather than elaborate studio setups. For several years my practice revolved around cheap portable speakers and mp3 players, which would be hidden in rubbish, on bus-stops, and in hedges. More recently, I have sought a little more control, certainly in terms of the quality of sound-produced. This is in turn problematic, since few venues I am invited to play have sound systems capable of recreating the nuance of my recent work.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
My first studio contained a borrowed copy of digital performer, a cheap midi controller, a Yamaha mixer and a Rode microphone. Eventually I picked up a copy of Reason, and through this I discovered the beauty of synthesis - which was quite an eye-opener to someone who dogmatically listened to punk music! In my early 20s I met a girl at university in Devon, and quickly realised that studying in the countryside was much better than the terrible job I was working at the time. I couldn’t play an instrument, so in order to get a place I spent the summer editing together several hundred recordings of terrible piano playing, and hoped to pass it off as one reasonable performance. It worked, but then of course I had to actually learn how to play the piano to stave of future embarrassment! Since then, the piano, and later the organ, have no doubt had a more pronounced effect on my practice than any other instrument, even as I have increasingly searched for more ‘open’ interfaces - such as the violin or modular synthesiser. I tend to use the modular in most of my work these days, as well as an oscilloscope.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
Humans are fantastic at getting confused, and have limited attention spans. Conversely, we can imagine things well beyond the limitations of our day to day experience. I have become more and more excited by experimenting with works that cannot be comprehended as one piece, but which a listener can immerse themselves in over time. My approach to scoring both sonic and performance works is to facilitate events wherein a performer can move along multiple pathways, and can allow their own actions, and the context of performance, into the work as it progresses. Personally, I like to be confused, and lost, and overwhelmed. I enjoy incomprehension more than understanding. Though I often consider myself somewhat of a technophobe in my day-to-day life, the automation that sequencers and periodic event generators can offer allows me to set up events that extend beyond my own cognition, to explore temporality, timbre and rhythm in ways that extend beyond my limited understanding and comprehension.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
My main production tool is without doubt a pen and paper. The works that I end up completing, are always those which come from a concept or idea constructed well in advance of any performative or sonic outcome. Often, my pieces are created as a response to a problem I perceive within my community, with the artistic result being more a documentation of the issues with which I am working than an end unto itself. Something like my video-work ‘Brighton Community Choir Does… Without You’ was born as a means of solving an issue of gender and youth engagement in participatory choir projects, with its audio-visual outcome being merely an experiment that sought to test out the theories I had already researched in advance. Likewise, many of my pieces explore simply object-location dynamics – what does it mean to wield a particular tool in a particular place? This might be distinctly musical, such as performing an instrument at a show, but might also be an exploration of moral or ethical considerations that already exist within shared space. One of my more successful works involved using harmonically-related drones on portable speakers to ‘frame’ an area of public space outside a bank – in which I then laid money on the street, before leaving. My audience, simply the passers-by at that time, become aware that some sort of ‘art’ was taking place, and that the money was part of it, but also held a specific relationship to the object - money - that I was offering. What emerges is an unprompted public discussion among strangers as to whether it is morally or ethically ok to take the money. Objects, rather than musical instruments, become the tool by which I encourage an audience to self-critique their use of shared social space.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I tend to like to collaborate in two ways – with people, and with space. I often find musicians can be challenging to collaborate with, and prefer working with people from other sectors, even outside of the arts. Some of my most successful collaborations have been with lawyers and bee-keepers! Collaboration is about extending beyond self. I have little interest in working with people who create work I already like – I want them to challenge my existing understandings, and to engage in a debate that seeks to mediate our contrary experiences. I take the same approach to collaborating with space – what is this building telling me? What is its history? How can it extend my understanding of my own actions within it?
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I have a daughter under two, who is mortally opposed to sleep, and as such any hope of a routine has long since passed. Thankfully, I am lucky enough to work in a university music studio, so can usually spend a fair portion of my week testing out ideas, trying out new equipment, and so forth. I teach several classes on the context of music production, sound-art, and such, which means I also do a reasonable amount of reading, and conceptualising, which is the main element of my own practice. It can often be hard to perceive a clear distinction between my general machinations and the start of a new work. Usually, I find myself returning to an idea or concept multiple times, and then begin thinking how I might enact it upon an instrument, or embed it within a performance. Certain objects end up staying with me through multiple works or performances - at the moment it is a plastic rabbit mask and a chalk board - and become as much part of my general character as a medium by which I explore an artistic idea. I have a somewhat unhealthy habit of always thinking I am not doing enough work, even when it dominates all other aspects of my social and family life.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
Several years ago, whilst doing my master’s degree, I started to become aware of a certain resistance, in academia at least - to the idea that art could, or should, be socially or politically resonant. When I began my doctorate, it was this - the social function of art - that became my main preoccupation, and I began conceiving of a work that would explore creativity as an existing facet of the everyday politik of a community. I had been reading a lot of European post-structuralism, and was enamoured by the ideas of Emanuel Levinas and Jean-Luc Nancy, who would locate art within the more mundane machinations of life - an expression of being, rather than denoting a specific quality held only by those labelled ‘artists’. I started constructing a work for everyday creativity, a score that might just as easily be used to ‘perform’ an argument with your spouse, or to fix the sink, as it might be used for a musical rendition. I wanted to create a work that asked its reader to engage with their environment creatively - what Joseph Beuys termed as ‘preparation’. I began by undertaking a series of simple performance art pieces in public space, exploring how people would respond to my actions - actions oriented around specific objects drawn from my research - a rabbit mask, a missionaries harmonium, gold, chalk. Depending on the reactions I received, I would include certain physical movements, or social dynamics, within the score, and then transpose these onto the physical and social dynamic of a musical performance on a modular synthesiser and prayer bowls. These experiments would eventually become ‘Lines’ (Hallow Ground, 2018), and its follow up, ‘Weaves’. The goal with these works was not to create a musical album per se, but rather to explore and document the rituals by which creativity is located within the everyday.