“Whether thatʼs audio art or sound art, honestly I would say I couldn’t care less”: A conversation with Nancy Tobin – Owen Chapman

Excerpt from interview with Nancy Tobin:


I interviewed Nancy Tobin in the context of a residency on audio art that I conducted at the Oboro new media center (oboro.net) during the summer of 2011. The residency was focused on writing a short essay on the subject of audio art, after having consulted the archives of work produced through Oboro. Tobin was immediately suggested to me as an artist that I should speak with. In the end, her perspective became integral to the paper I wrote (see the Jan. 2012 edition of Esse), especially in her assertions about how labels like “audio art” or “sound art” are part of the currency of grant applications, rather than integral to artistic practices. Questions such as “does this fit into the category of audio/sound art?” are kind of beside the point when it comes to making decisions about directions to follow when creating work.

But basing an artistic practice on the medium of sound is a choice that warrants discussion. In addressing us through our sense of hearing, audio artists elicit empathetic, embodied responses to what they reveal. When witnessing an audio artwork, we feel, in some small way, what it would be like to cause and/or perceive the sounds we are hearing in other situations, both fictional and real. These are mnemonic, physical, psychological, social, cultural (etc.) responses. We are performed, in some senses, by what we hear in these instances.

The interview transcribed below spanned the course of a short visit to her home studio and an outdoor meal at the Atwater Market on September 2, 2011. Our conversation started with a discussion of her 2009 piece Delay Toys, produced in part during a residency at Oboro. This is the first in a series of interviews to be published in NMP throughout 2012, stemming from the conversations I collected and transcribed in the course of my research at Oboro.

A conversation with Nancy Tobin – Owen Chapman

Nancy Tobin: Delay Toys is really a project about childhood and audio art. I think I started this project in 2005 and finished it in 2009—and the first step was to meet people in places that were important to them, had some kind of resonance for them because of a moment in their childhood. It could be a church, a schoolyard, or a parent’s house. So I would come and visit the person in this space that they had chosen and I would have these two suitcases… I have another suitcase like this, this is one of them, this has mostly the percussive elements, and I had another suitcase that had the—

Owen Chapman: Reminds me of my house.

NT: [laughter] Yeah, another suitcase that had more melodic stuff in it, so people wouldn’t know. I would just arrive with these suitcases and I would say, “Okay you don’t have to do anything, you can do whatever you want, you don’t have to make anything musical, but I’m going to start recording as soon as you open the suitcases.” So that way I accumulated a lot of raw material, and then I used all that—and only that—to make Delay Toys. So I just wanted you to see the…

[sounds, playing with instrument]

They’re kind of old toys that I collected over the years in places like the Salvation Army and stuff.

OC: Did people talk while they were interacting with the material?

NT: It was a while ago that I recorded, it was almost 6 years ago. They weren’t necessarily saying anything, but there were exclamations or laughs or stuff like that in those recordings. Nobody described what they were doing.

OC: So the relationship with the place was never made a part of the recording process?

NT: Well, it was part of it, because the recording occurred in the place, so we would get the feeling of the room. In the final work, I didn’t use reverb. There’s no treatment, but you get a sense of space because one place—with Martin Tétreault—was a church, another place—with Nathalie Derome—was the basement of her parent’s house, with Shonid Watkins it was her bathroom, with her bathtub, so all those places had a certain character and acoustic quality.

OC: So the same toys would sound different in the different places. This one’s intriguing too it reminds me of a turntable.

T: It was really interesting to observe how everyone would just bring me to a different place and do totally different things with the exact same kit of toys. So I had that raw material collected from participants, and then I took the two suitcases and I improvised in the Oboro studio. That is where Stéphane Claude did all the recording, and then it was sort of like the opposite: controlled environment, controlled acoustics, and microphones…

OC: Very clean.

NT: And Martin Tétreault came, and we did duos together and stuff.

OC: When you’re describing a piece, at least in the literature that I’ve seen, you often refer to the exact specific models of microphones that you’re using. Is there a reason for that, which goes beyond just wanting to be accurate for the future? Are there particular mics that you really like because of their sonic signature?

NT: My background in sound is not music. It’s technical sound—sound reinforcement, sound design for shows—so my accumulated knowledge, all the solid theory I have, is more technical. When I specify a piece of equipment, for me it’s important because it kind of determines a certain texture, a certain feeling even. The way you perceive it is personal, but in a general way the approach is totally different if you’re using, let’s say, an SM57 or if you’re using a TLM170. You could use those two mics to record exactly the same thing, but of course the quality won’t be the same. You might want to use a mic that has a lower quality, but in this application it is the best thing to choose because you know that you want this type of texture or sound. I’m not a button person. For me, it starts right at the mic. That’s where it has to come from. For instance the CD Ouverture, that was very, very small brass chimes. Like you listen to them in mid-air, just tapping on them, and there’s no sound. You have to press against a piece of wood, and even if you do that you hardly hear it. It’s a bit like a pitchfork; you know how you have to bring that closer to your ear? It’s the same thing. So doing those recordings, the mic was—I was very close to the microphone, the brass chimes were very close also, and it was all contained in this one-foot-by-one-foot environment, so of course when I was recording, you would hear my presence. So my breathing, my tummy doing all these noises, and some of them in the work are still there, gurgles, tummy gurgles and breathing.

OC: I’d like to get your opinion on why you call yourself a sound artist or audio artist. What do these terms mean to you? How does Delay Toys fit into these concepts?

NT: Delay Toys is basically recordings that were manipulated in a way that, for me, is composing. From that process a work appeared or came about, and that work is something that people can listen to on their own in their own personal environments, hopefully it’ll be on a CD or some other format. So whether that’s audio art or sound art, honestly I would say I couldn’t care less.

OC: Is it music?

NT: Well, if music can only come about by using the musical language, then Delay Toys is not music. But John Cage was saying for a long, long time—ever since at least the 50s—that every sound is musical. So I don’t know… Like sometimes to describe my own work, I really do not have—I did some “solfège,” I did some music theory, but these are certainly not the tools I use when I work. I do say “compose” because for me to make a work—a sound work or an audio work—is to compose. You have to bring elements together, just by your sensitivity and even how you feel in that moment.

OC: I agree with you that these questions of genre or category—is this in or is this out—are really not that interesting. And yet I’m trying to tease out some of these concepts because I think that, by putting them into conversation with one another, then they do become interesting.

So, you know, if one person says, “well I see what I do as being compositional but not musical, and by music I mean ‘a b c'” and somebody else says, “oh no I see myself as a musician first and foremost and yet this is not through using processes of musical notation…,” then we start to have a dialogue between different points of view and then something—the truth doesn’t emerge—but an interesting conversation emerges.

NT: Which is more about the process of creating work than anything else, I guess.

OC: Yeah. And recognizing too that people will conceptualize what they do in different ways but on a practical level there may be similarities that are worth mentioning. So I don’t think that there’s any way I can define audio art or sound art, that’s not the ambition. But trying to bring together… Like For me, Delay Toys as a piece of work would fall under my conception of audio art because of its conceptual orientation. It’s not conceptual art necessarily, but it started with a series of choices around [sound-making] objects. You have a relationship to those toys, and in the decision to work in particular places that were suggested to you by your participants—all of this starts to shape the work even before you start recording. So I’m thinking that this is one of the potential strands that audio art can be. It’s a process, which involves—

NT: Defining boundaries.

OC: Yeah defining boundaries.

NT: You know, as an artist, I don’t necessarily think about how my work is defined. It’s just my natural impulse, and I just do it and don’t think about whether I’m a musician, an audio or sound whatever… those are preoccupations more of a curator or of a—

OC: An academic.

NT: Or an academic. As you say, it’s very interesting for the discussions that they may bring about but when you’re in the activity, like in the action of making the work. You’re not preoccupied with how the work can be defined, you’re just making the work. You don’t have to think about the work. But one interesting thing is that the way we can finance our work, asking for grants and submitting a grant proposal, often does impose a certain reflection that may be more theoretical than actually doing the work, and I find that interesting. You’re not really defining whether your work is audio or sound, but you are trying to explain the work to a jury so that they can have an understanding of it before it is done. You have to sort of know exactly what you’re going to do before you actually do it. I find that interesting as a process, and I’m thankful that if we do have to define precisely what a work may be when we’re proposing it for a grant, once that work is done, even if we did not necessarily do exactly what was described in the proposal, it’s not a problem. And I think that’s very important.

OC: I have a couple of other specific questions that I’m trying to ask everybody. One of them is about performance. I’m curious to hear how you react to that term being applied to what you do, like, where you see it fit or if it doesn’t at all or those kinds of questions.

NT: For Delay Toys what I did, I had all the raw material that was accumulated and I had started listening, editing, doing first try-outs of the material, and I applied for a residency at Oboro and I got it. That meant that I had this very privileged area to create the work. So I had equipment that I would not necessarily have on my own, I had a space. The environment is incredible, the people are incredible, it’s a great place to develop a work, there’s no doubt. So I felt very lucky to be able to change my usual environment, surroundings, go into a new place and really focus specifically on one work. And it was good for Delay Toys because there was a lot of—like, I did work a lot, and by “work,” I mean sitting down and actually editing, but there was also a lot of figuring… Trying to grasp what it is to go back into a certain childhood feeling. So I was trying to invent games that I would play to give me another perspective on what I was trying to create. Like, instead of forcing myself to stay at the desk when it was not working, I would just lay down on the floor where there was this big gigantic plant in the studio, and I would just stare at the plant, and not feel guilty about that. Because that was the project, it has to be playful. It must not be forced or imposed or rigorous. Not rigorous at all. Open, light, playful…

OC: Would you say that the idea of being in a residency opens up that freedom?

NT: Totally. I don’t think I would have been able to do that in my usual studio. It would have been impossible. So thanks to Oboro, this situation, I was able to really go far in this—trying to reinvent certain ways of working. And what Oboro also does every year, which is very interesting for the audio and sound community, is to organize all these workshops: people coming to talk about ambient sound, people that come like Christina Kubisch to talk about magnetic fields and her work on that. And that’s a great initiative that Oboro has [developed] through Stephane Claude, who is very rigorous and a very special guy in audio. I think Montreal is very lucky to have Oboro. I think the induction workshop [with Christina Kubisch] was very special because of the people that were there. There was Stephane Claude, Steve Bates, Tara Rogers, like all these, in my opinion, very interesting artists. So for sure it made a very special atmosphere. And also to be able to discover Montreal through Christina’s magnetic amplifiers.

OC: Have you continued to work with what you learned in that workshop?

NT: I’ve certainly continued to develop pieces with magnetic fields. That’s really my area of research that I’ve been working on since a year after starting Delay Toys.

OC: Can you tell me more about that?

NT: I just did a performance piece at Foundry Darling that was based on that [Expire]. I worked with inductors, which are basically electronic components of a circuit that contain a very small coil. I worked with those, and I used them to pick up magnetic fields in my environment, which were amplified and went to a speaker system. But I also manipulated sound using magnets. I was able to play the magnetic field. So I’m very interested in that sound source, for sure.

OC: It was a kind of naïve question on my part.

NT: But it brings us to “performance.” I studied in theatre. My official “formation serieuse, c’est le theatre,” and I took a lot of courses in acting, not because I wanted to become an actress, but because at the time that was the profile that you needed to be able to take other courses, like in communication. I wanted to take sound courses. I was very interested in vocal classes, so I’ve always been interested in the performative aspect of [art] work, for sure. But in theatre I was never interested by the female roles that were traditionally offered… that was completely from the beginning not interesting to me. And now more and more, my work is about uniting sound or audio art with performance, but in a way that is almost theatrical. So thinking about a costume, a set… like, for Expire there was a scenography: the design of the space, the costume, the set. So all these aspects are coherent in relation to the basic concepts of the piece. I’m not a character in the work, but my presence is there in a certain way and it’s not for nothing, it’s thought out. I’m not just there in a t-shirt and a pair of jeans, like you would do for a performance in a bar. There’s kind of a theatrical touch. And one other thing that’s important for me when we touch upon the idea of performance with audio, it’s very important for me now to touch people. To find a way to make it so the work will be sensitive and not technical or hard to figure out or intelligent or bright. For me that’s not the main focus. The main focus is to figure out how will this piece touch me and how will this piece touch people.

OC: Emotionally, like… move them or make them feel something.

NT: Yeah, exactly.

Owen Chapman is an audio artist whose work involves sampling, video projection, contact microphones and old electronic instruments. He is co-director of the Montreal Mobile Media Lab, located in the Communication Studies department at Concordia University, where he is also an Assistant Professor in Sound Production and Scholarship.

Nancy Tobin is an audio artist based in the St-Henri neighbourhood of Montreal. Her sound designs for dance and theatre productions have been part of the Festival TransAmériques, the World Stage Festival, the Festival d’Avignon and the Edinburgh International Festival. Tobin has, in her twenty years of experience, developed a specialization in vocal amplification for theater and is known for her distinct style using unusual loudspeakers to transform the aural qualities of her compositions. In performance and sound improvisation, Tobin collaborates regularly with turntable sound artist Martin Tétreault (duo TÉTO, the TURNTABLE QUARTET and the SUPERHEART perfomance). Her solo work includes commissions for the group ARTIFICIEL (Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal), and curator Eric Mattson (Mutek Festival and other special events). Her current performance instrumentation consists of electromagnetic transducers, vintage tone generators, and small speakers. In 2007, she formed BêTEs NoCTurnes an open collective improvising live on the idea of sounds of nature at night.

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