Name: Gil Sansón
Occupation: Composer, multimedia artist
Current release: Gil Sansón's Impostor Syndrome, a surreally pastoral suite of pieces for voice, guitar, field recordings and electronics, which somehow, inexplicably and miraculously, blend into a larger, coherent whole, is out now via Full Spectrum.
For an even deeper look into his approach and personal history, read our expansive Gil Sansón interview.
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?
My early musical experiences, or rather the first time I remember recognizing an aesthetic dimension to sound, have to do with two works, Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" and Glenn Miller's "In The Mood". These were gateway pieces of music that kept me investigating further, though naturally as a kid one tends to listen to the same pieces of music over and over, same way one does with movies.
What kept me returning beyond the surface appeal of the music was the logic in their construction, though I've always had this attitude towards music that both tries to understand what's going on and at the same time not wanting to know too much for fear of losing the mystery inherent to it. I did noticed, as a result of my exposure to rock music in my teenage years, that I had an affinity for the music of the experimenters and all those artists willing to push the envelope, so sonic extremes were soon something I grew accustomed to, from the very quiet to the full on blast.
What's your take on how your upbringing and cultural surrounding have influenced your sonic preferences?
My middle class upbringing no doubt has influenced my musical preferences and left me a lifelong love for Western art music, both high and lowbrow. At the same time, having experienced much economic uncertainty and downgrading status I've encountered and become attracted to types of music I did not had access to in my childhood, like salsa music, which I hold dear and that I encountered via public transportation buses in Caracas and later in bars.
Part of a middle class upbringing has to do with habits of reading and thus buying music magazines was essential at the time. Some of these magazines had a very good reputation and readers would often buy records based on a good review, and there's also the social aspect of record stores, people would gather at the best of them and people met there, form new bands, talk music and so on.
Do you see yourself as part of a tradition or historic lineage when it comes to your way of working with sound?
I do see myself as part of a tradition of Western art music. It was a very conflictive world during the XX century, with many strands actively competing each other for supremacy, but today all of these fights for survival are obsolete and artists can mix any of these threads in a personal relationship to music history and I believe this is a very healthy development.
A way of doing things is now just that: a way of doing things, and not an attack on other ways of doing things.
What types of sound do you personally prefer to work with? Are there sounds you reject – if so, for what reasons?
I don't have a type of sound I reject outright per se. I do reject certain practices and I do object to the notion of standards other than personal standards, but it's often a pragmatic view: strategically speaking, certain compromises are not out of the question, but on other aspects I take a contrarian attitude, as I do with current standard production techniques. With these I take pleasure in perverting them or completely ignoring them, depending on the case.
My reason for opposing standard techniques is simple, they make everybody sound the same, and as with most traditions followed uncritically, they foster mediocrity and intellectual laziness. I believe it's up to each artist to find out which of these practices are common sense and which of these are arbitrary.
Where do you find the sounds you're working with? How do you collect and organise them?
I have many ways of finding sounds. A sound can be found in a book, it can come as a response to casual listening (for example, you hear a bit of classical music on the radio that you are unfamiliar with, and in turn it generates a musical response in your mind), it can come as result of active listening to your surroundings, it can come out of the instrument itself, it can be an accident caused by a glitch, etc.
My mind is always working on several projects at once so my process involves a good deal of procrastination and fragmentary thinking. These fragments are then organized in a more or less chaotic system and accessed following whim and serendipity, for the most part. Some of these fragments require little furbishing, others quite a lot.
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?
I view self expression as a given, not something I need to labor upon or even think about too much. Self expression happens simply by way of choosing some sounds over others. I also don't believe for one second the either/or logic that says that conceptual thinking is dry, boring and unemotional. I rather examine the work to see what it is than start with a preconceived notion. I found that the material itself tends to insinuate the form it wants to take, or at least the form that will allow it to establish its character.
But art is paradoxical by nature and it's quite possible to have work that's both conceptually sound and satisfying on a more basic and emotional level, and we know that the views of the artist do not exhaust the meaning that can be extracted from the work. So in that sense, I embrace paradox and try to engage the mind and the emotions of the listener if I want to, or simply offer a sound object with no clear meaning for the listener to make something of it.
From the point of view of your creative process, how do you work with sounds?
I make full use of the editing capacities of today's digital technology, but money's always an issue so I gravitate to free software like Audacity and Musescore.
I've never been a gear geek, so for me the only essentials are a good laptop and my H2n Zoom digital microphone and recorder. That and any music making device available, environmental sounds, you name it.
But like I said, as my musical thoughts come also from reading and thinking, I have many notebooks with notes, thoughts, written music and quotes from others.
Which tools have been most important and useful for you when it comes to working with and editing sounds?
I tend to work around my given limitations at any moment, so I don't really think of the ideal conditions I would like to have when working.
My relative frustration in this sense comes from working with field recordings, as anyone working in that area can attest. The sound you want to record often disappears when you press record, for example, or having to listen to hours and hours of uneventful sounds just to find those five second stretches of sonic gold, nothing uncommon to this area. I have developed a good deal of patience when dealing with these matters, anyway.
A number of projects have been cancelled due to politics or budget constraints, but mostly on the area of sound art, when you have to deal with other realities beyond recording music and presenting it in concert.
Many artists have related that certain sounds trigger compositional ideas in them or are even a compositional element in their own right. Provided this is the case for you – what, exactly, is about certain sounds that triggers such ideas in you?
This is a complex question. A concrete sound and a constructed sound can have very different responses, both at the conceptual level and at the perception level.
For example, car horns: when hearing a mass of them, my mind may want to hear the note that they are not playing that could harmonize the whole. If it's, say, a piano chord, my mind wants to know what's next, a repetition of the same chord or a new one, for example. Another sound can trigger ideas by the act of getting inside the sound, as deep listening, as one can do with a rain stick or radio static, finding that what appears static and flat is in fact very deep and eventful in it's own way.
Then there comes the issue of what to do about it, how much is really necessary to bring these idea of sound to life, how much do you want to put of yourself in it before you start suffocating the sound with your problems.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and composition?
Sound, space and composition are in dialogue. Sound has a tendency to request its space, and composition is often about how long the sound should go on in relation to the space in which it happens.
Some of my works are better experienced alongside everyday sounds, the proper level of volume to be decided by the listener, ideally as result of the awareness of the sounds being in dialogue with the environment. Other works, like Impostor Syndrome, are more or less designed as a record, to be played at home or through headphones. Different medium, different message, attuned to each medium. Different emphasis, so to speak.
Humans are often characterised as "visual beings". In your opinion, what role does our sense of hearing play in our understanding of the world? How do sounds affect you, compared to other senses like sight or smell?
Sound takes as much of my attention as the visual field, often much more so. Active listening is very much like meditation, you're always listening to everything around you without judgement and after doing this type of listening for a while one finds that it's quite rare when nothing interesting goes on for long periods of time. Also, a boring listening experience can be contradicted by a well placed microphone.
At the same time, visual cues can bring out sounds in the mind. In my case, this often happens when I see a butterfly, the sight elicits some sort of neural response that feels like a musical gesture that can be left to be for a fragment of time and then forgotten, or it can stick in the mind and eventually becoming music or sound.
The idea of acoustic ecology has drawn a lot of attention to the question of how much we are affected by the sound surrounding us. What's your take on this and on acoustic ecology as a movement in general?
Acoustic ecology is a very important notion. The soundscape changes in subtle and not so subtle ways to our actions in ways that can be measured.
For example, if there's urban development in areas that used to be pristine, you can find that there are new additions to your environment in the form of wildlife that was forced to resettle in your area. I listen to my sonic environment all the time, appreciating the great variety of birds and insects, and slowly accepting the annoying sound of small dogs barking and how sometimes they don't sound so bad depending on the acoustics of the moment and place.
But beyond that I don't hold any notion of artists holding any sort of political power to change the environmental crisis.
We can listen to a pop song or open our window and simply take in the noises of the environment. Without going into the semantics of 'music vs field recordings', in which way are these experiences different and / or connected, do you feel?
The same pop song can sound very different depending on the context. We all have experienced how the same piece of music loses character in the wrong setting. A song can be tied to a time and place and lose quite a bit of charm when taken out of that context.
Now, a song blasted through the window seems to me like a personal statement, the person is trying to say something by this act. Context is essential, even if the song itself can be evaluated on purely formal terms.
From the concept of Nada Brahma to "In the Beginning was the Word", many spiritual traditions have regarded sound as the basis of the world. Regardless of whether you're taking a scientific or spiritual angle, what is your own take on the idea of a harmony of the spheres and sound as the foundational element of existence?
Like I said, actively listening came to me as a function of transcendental meditation. So there's a spiritual dimension to it, but in my case has nothing to do with spiritual or cultural traditions, so no tropes, no incense, no Tibetan bowls, but rather the possibility of sounds being themselves, with some graceful gentle nudging here and there to keep the magic going on, and primarily suspending judgement. Which can be quite difficult for most artists if they focus on self expression and identity.