Name: Rob St John
Occupation: Sound artist, field recorder, writer
Current release: Rob St John's Surface Tension is out as a 2CD compilation or a beautifully designed eco-mix vinyl record via Blackford Hill.
If you enjoyed this interview with Rob St John, visit his informative website, which offers examples of his work as well as inks to his diverse activities both around or outside of music. He is also on twitter.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
I try to make space for creativity in daily life, whether in my studio at home, out on fieldwork for projects, or in routines around looking after my daughter, making food, tending an allotment, running on the fells, and so on. It all comes from the same place, in a lot of ways.
Creativity, in these terms, is maybe an everyday act of attuning to the place in which you find yourself.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
Often I’ll have a rough idea of the material forms of the work – I largely work with sound, film, photography and installation practices – but I am always keen to create space for chance and emergence in the ways in which those forms take shape.
I’m interested in how environmental processes of weathering, decay and regrowth can affect the material and aesthetic shape of sonic and film pieces, often using tape loops and 8mm and 16mm film. Similarly, I’m interested in how environmental processes which are otherwise off limits to human perception systems might be made sensible, and I’m currently experimenting with processes like sonification to do this. All these processes involve setting the starting points for work, and seeing what emerges.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
A lot of my work is made through slow, sustained periods of fieldwork in particular places. As a result, the preparation phase often involves a lot of research into the cultures, geographies, ecologies, histories, rituals and so on of a particular place.
I have a broad tool-kit of processes, but I’m always keen for the characteristics of a site to re-shape how they might be deployed, and what might arise in the moment. I’m always hoping to be surprised and challenged by what I encounter on-site, and for my own processes of skilling to be developed as a result.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
Increasingly, my work days begin with a run, often over the fells where I live in East Lancashire. The rhythm and repetition of these runs, and the shifting textures of the landscapes through which you pass, often clears my head and creates space for new ideas to form.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
Research and fieldwork is a big part of my creative process, and there are often moments during this work when a particular moment of sound, film or image making will guide how the work should take shape.
It’s then a process of staying alert to these moments, to keeping field notebooks, and then working from them back in the studio.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
It really depends on the project: how it is commissioned; its funding; its deadlines; its collaborations. I like to work quickly and instinctively, and then to leave time in order to revisit and edit the work a while later. I am usually my own worst critic, and will often go through a pretty heavy editing and discard process!
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
No, I’m pretty open to work being shaped by chance and emergent processes in relationship to the landscape, whether in terms of my own circlings of a place, or the work I make there.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
I’m always hoping to be challenged and surprised by the creative process; I don’t want to slip into a state of thinking I really know what I’m doing! Increasingly, I’m trying to think through how my creative process (and maybe other people’s, too) comes through the diffractions between site, skill and theory.
Site, in terms of the characteristics of the place (landscape, studio, etc) in which you work. Skill, in terms of your own development as an artist with different practices of making. And theory, in terms of the big thoughts you have percolating around your head, the often subconcious things that guide your work at a particular time and space. Certainly, for me, the ways in which I work bubble up from a space between these three processes; all of which are constantly co-shaped.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
It’s about trying to live a modest life fully and well.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
Often the shape of the finished work will be defined in advance: a sound installation, a record, a film, an exhibition, and so on. And, the realities of making a living as an artist mean that the ways in which you get to these finishing points are often defined along the way by commissioning, funding, timeline and collaboration structures. So there’s often a tightrope to walk between experiment and end-product, which I guess is probably common to a lot of artist’s practices.
But, regardless of this, a work will often reach a point – sometimes swiftly, sometimes slowly – when it makes sense to you, when everything settles into a satisfying shape.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
I think it’s important to be able to step back from work for a while and to return to it later. The process of making, for me, is carried along on impulse and improvisation, and I think it’s good to be able to look at/listen to work afterwards, to see if what you have made still says something to you. Often, I’ll share work with trusted friends and collaborators, who will make astute (and sometimes very critical!) comments on it; this process of collaborative sharing and shaping is important to me.
Surface Tension, a project I did in 2014, walking the River Lea catchment in East London to document life, biodiversity and pollution, is a good example of this. An album and book was pieced together from dozens of hours of field recordings and hundreds of film photographs, and brought together with compositions which were variously looped, altered and degraded on 1/4 inch tape. It was a pretty big project to piece together, and needed plenty of pauses to make sense of. It’s just been re-released on recycled vinyl by the Blackford Hill label, which I’m very pleased with.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
Most of what I make is produced by myself, whether mixing sound, editing and splicing film, or developing photographs. One exception are the records I make with my band Modern Studies, which are produced and mixed by band-member Pete Harvey at his Pumpkinfield Studio in Perthshire, Scotland.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
Absolutely, I think this is quite a common shared experience; but the inverse is that the work – in whatever shape – can now be remade and interpreted by new eyes and ears. In a sense, losing this sense of ownership is another form of the creative act, I think.
I also quite enjoy the ritual of tidying the studio after a major project, of putting things back in place, ordering depleted supplies, clearing the decks for the next thing.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
I think everyday life involves all sorts of inherently creative acts, that aren’t necessarily related only to what we might term ‘art practice’.
But making music, sound, film and photographs is a particular kind of creativity for me, one that variously allows me to slow and settle in a particular place, and to become attuned to its patterns and processes. It allows me to be quietly productive and receptive to the world.