Name: Simon Whetham
Occupation: Sound artist, field recorder
Current release: Simon Whetham's (II)ntolerance is out via Kohlhaas.
Recommendations: I am biased, but I find the writing of Caleb Kelly particularly relevant and interesting. I am also reading some Dirk Raaijmaakers, which can be quite funny at times.
http://www.everydaylistening.com/ used to be a good website resource for sonic arts, although biased towards the Dutch artist community. It would be great if some researchers or enthusiasts started something similar.
If you enjoyed these thoughts by Simon Whetham and would like to find out more about his work, visit his official website. He is also on Facebook, Soundcloud, and twitter.
Simon also answered an early version of the 15 Questions in 2012. Visit that interview to read his thoughts 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?
I think these are two quite different questions, although of course can be linked ...
Making instruments from toys and games with my brother Carl at an early age, such as stretching elastic bands around lengths of red plastic from some game to mimic a guitar;
Being given a cassette recorder with an external plug-in mic that I recall dragging around and placing inside things (not body cavities!);
The memory of being terrified of sound! While on a family holiday when I was young we were blasted by a foghorn from a nearby lighthouse – I remember trying to run away and crying my eyes out – because of that sound;
Interest in/fascination for sound:
I have always been affected and moved by the overall sound or combinations of sounds in some music – so bands like Fugazi sound amazing, but I had no idea what they were singing about when I first listened to them. The same with Public Enemy. I came to care more when I learned there was a message, but when I first bought and played “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back” I was in awe! Horns like sirens, the angry/playful back and forth between Chuck D. and Flavor Flav, incredible no-nonsense beats – even metal guitars! I disliked metal and hard rock at the time, and we are talking late-80's middle-of-nowhere English countryside living. Why did this young naïve white village kid love what this group of pissed-off black Americans did?? Because they sounded incredible!
As for a fascination with sound, that has come through working with it in various ways – from recording ambient sound through to using contact mics, hydrophones, pickup coils, etc. opened up the world of sonic phenomena to me, then playing those sounds back through various types of speakers in various different spaces, the physical and psychological effects of this, exploring vibration, psychoacoustics, resonance of materials and space – these are all fascinating to explore and develop ideas around.
So my more recent work explores sound as in the way we work with it – recording, amplification, transduction. It's a stage in the process and I have no idea where it will lead, which is still exciting for me.
Which artists, approaches, albums or performances using sound in an unusual or remarkable way captured your imagination in the beginning?
Performances that blew me away:
The first: Ilios in an almost empty back room of a pub in London – I think an entr'acte showcase evening ...
John Grzinich in the backyard of a tea room in Riga, Latvia – he looked possessed!
Coppice at McNeill Street Pumping Station New Music Festival, Shreveport, USA
Thomas Ankersmit and Valerio Tricoli at Observatori, Valencia, Spain
Curious – 'the moment I saw you I knew I could love you'
Duncan Harrison at an Active Crossover event in Brighton
[Read our Valerio Tricoli interview]
Albums that were an early influence in some way:
Alp – At home with Alp
David Toop curated Sonic Boom book and CD compilation
Various works by Chop Shop (Scott Konzelmann)
Michael Prime – Domestic Science
Ohm: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music CD compilation
[Read our David Toop interview]
What's your take on how your upbringing and cultural surrounding have influenced your sonic preferences?
I would say my upbringing has had little influence to be honest ... Although I do remember my amazing music teacher at high school Mr. Hannah played us a version of 4'33”! Of course we were mouthy teenagers – none of us got it …
That I have been super fortunate to have travelled to amazing places and work with amazing artists has been the biggest influence on my sonic preferences. The inspiration and energy exchanged has been life-changing.
Now I know there is a tendency for artists, especially in regard to field recording, to present sounds from exotic places – I began by doing this! - but I have come to focus on working with the less glamorous everyday sounds and activities, to now using things that people find worthless and discard.
So now I would much rather listen to a faulty air conditioning unit than a pristine and immaculate (as in no human sounds) of a rainforest.
Working predominantly with field recordings and sound can be an incisive step / transition. Aside from musical considerations, there can also be personal motivations for looking for alternatives. Was this the case for you, and if so, in which way?
Firstly there are so many artists who are regarded as working predominantly with field recordings and yet make very musical works, so I'm not sure how incisive it is. I know a few friends use field recordings as another 'instrument' or layer to their palette.
But for me it definitely was a shift away from what I understood at the time as music. I had played guitar in bands for years and had begun to experiment with more abstract sounds and treatments in the studio, but (and I think anyone who knows me must know this story by now!) an invitation to join an artistic research trip to Iceland led me to indulge in the activity of field recording as a way to explore and respond to a place.
Another aspect of the trip was travelling with three artists working in visual ways. One in particular had no respect for my activities and work, only regarding the sounds as an accompaniment to their work. However, when visitors came to the resulting exhibition they stayed, intently listening to the recordings through a headphone installation much longer than they regarded the images presented.
It was clear that my fascination of hearing these sounds while recording them was shared by others when they were presented removed from their source and the activity that caused them.
How would you describe the shift of moving towards music which places the focus foremost on sound, both from your perspective as a listener and a creator?
Is there a shift? I think there are those who place a focus on the sound above all else, but then there are those who present an idea or concept with little regard of the actual sound heard, or they compose in a very gestural way and the work is more about the artist than the sound.
I am reminded of a lecture by my friend Ryu Hankil (which was in Korean so I could only understand a little!) where he clapped once, stating that this was sound. He then clapped rhythmically and stated that this was now music. I think through that he summed it up in a very simple but utterly brilliant way. So if we take a sound that has been recorded in a street and loop it, it becomes music, and we hear music, no longer the sound itself but the beat, the rhythm.
When it comes to my own work, I am currently presenting things that I find interesting and enjoyable to listen to. But the results are from a process of channelling sound – before through speakers, through space and subsequently through transducers attached to various materials and objects – and now through motor devices.
The sound heard has very little relation to the sound I recorded, so I guess my work is more focused on the process and results of transduction.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and working with sound? Do you see yourself as part of a tradition or historic lineage when it comes to your way of working with sound?
Generally, as mentioned above, I like to explore what is going on and what's possible through the amplification, recording and playback process – a sound becomes an electrical signal that is then reproduced by changing it back from electricity to vibrations. Transduction.
But it depends on the project. The work (II)ntolerance collects and combines various sound making activities that I recorded. One aspect of it was I wanted to use sounds that clearly represented movement and were from various locations as a response to lockdowns and confinement.
As I tend to use field recordings, people often assume I want to go out and record 'nature sounds' like birds singing, but unless a project requires it I'm not so interested in this these days. Using the material I do and the way I do, I am obviously following a path that comes from musique concrète, but I'm not sure I make work in that style!