“Not All Audio Art is Good, Obviously…”: A Conversation with Nimalan Yoganathan – Owen Chapman

Nimalan Yoganathan’s work demonstrates that “audio art” and “music” need not be mutually exclusive categories, showing how soundscape field recordings can replace Hip Hop MCs. Our interview also touched on sampling practices, the significance of attribution with source material, and the ethics/aesthetics of sound mapping. I was particularly keen to learn about Yoganathan’s field recording in Inukjuak, Nunavik, as well as his collaborations with the Stein brothers and their “Montreal Sound Map” project. Shortly after our interview, Yoganathan left for the Brazilian Amazon to gather field recordings as part of a group residency led by sound artist Francisco Lopez. His 2011 album Sangam can be heard at http://nimalanyoganathan.bandcamp.com – check out “Qimmiruluapik” for some spine-tingling North meets South (as in Jamaica) juxtapositions.

This is the second in a series of interviews with Montreal-based audio artists conducted during the summer of 2011 as part of a “writing audio art” residency at the Oboro new media centre (http://oboro.net). I met Yoganathan for lunch on September 9th at the Croissanterie Linda on rue St. Catherine.

Qimmiruluapik By Nimalan Yoganathan

Nimalan Yoganathan: I started off just using pure field recordings and composing with that. I did more traditional soundscape compositions. But then I got the idea of trying to integrate that with Hip Hop and Dub music. Rather than sampling soul records, I’m going to sample some floating village in Vietnam or something. And try to integrate it that way, but not in the kind of traditional Hip Hop way where you just take a short, two-second excerpt of someone’s voice, but rather spread it out and make dense textures within it. Very interesting, but very challenging at the same time. I’ve tried approaching MCs and they’re like, “I can’t rap over this, it’s too much.” Which is unfortunate, but at the same time I can understand because I guess the music is more… maybe it’s more instrumental based?

Owen Chapman: Hip Hop used to be all about pushing the envelope and trying new styles and the more “next level” you were, the better. I don’t want to say that everybody’s like this, but it feels like it’s become codified or much more rigid… more pop-y in terms of structure.

NY: But then you look at J Dilla for instance and – do you know Raymond Scott? I was part of that benefit, that concert that they did at Concordia. His son was giving a talk, and I was speaking with him and I asked, “How do you feel about J Dilla”? He blatantly used a few of Raymond Scott’s pieces without getting any permission, and they were really mad about that. He was like, “he didn’t get any kind of clearance, he didn’t even bother asking us.”

OC: It’s just the Hip Hop way, I guess.

NY: It’s good and bad because I can understand. Raymond Scott never really got any recognition, so he could at least quote him and say, check out his stuff. But at the same time, if you do research, you could find out [who J Dilla sampled] and it brings it into a new light. But that’s just him. You won’t see many people taking samples like that. It seems like there’s a bank of samples that people are using.

OC: One thing I’m trying to outline is what “audio art” means as a term. Most audio artists are going to have a very idiosyncratic interpretation of what it means, and some of them might reject it entirely. And yet, there is a literature that I’ve encountered, maybe the term “sound art” is more what’s being used, but people are trying to define what it is and relate it to the history of installation art, differentiating it from experimental music. I get it, because you want words to have significance when you’re talking, but it’s too constraining, I think.

NY: I guess the thing with audio art and sound art – the problem with a lot of academics – is they should be teaching more outside the circle. For instance, you learn about Stockhausen and John Cage. But what about Dub music, like King Tubby. These guys are often forgotten because it’s described as just music or pop music or it’s too common. But in fact King Tubby is experimenting as much as people like Stockhausen, with new technology, reverb, and following up on what these guys [Stockhausen and Cage] started in the 1950s.

OC: If you exclude performance as one element of what “sound art” or “audio art” can be, then it’s too constraining. For instance, going to see a scratch DJ, or a live electronic music performer – can that constitute audio art? You’re dealing with samples and fragments and other bits, you’re pulling them together, you’re manipulating them in a musical way, but it’s all live in real time.

NY: As soon as something has melody or it’s catchy or it has elements of music in it, then it gets stuck into the music category. But when you’re talking about performance, that’s something I always think about because I’ll do some shows where it’s just purely Hip Hop, Dub stuff, right? And I’ll set it up that way as like performance. But at the same time it’s not really a performance. I get self conscious as a performer because it’s like a laptop synthesizer, there’s nothing exciting going on necessarily, it’s more just for listening. I often play with a lot of noise artists – do you consider that a performance? Is it entertaining? I mean, if you find listening entertaining then that’s a performance, right?

OC: Can you tell me about your involvement with Oboro – what you presented and how the process went?

NY: I did two projects, one project was with Max and Julien [Stein] who did the Montreal Sound Map [http://montrealsoundmap.com].

We got invited. They have a Caisse Populaire residency for young artists. So we got access to all the studio facilities and the equipment and everything. Our project was taking the idea of the Montreal Sound Map – mapping – and we basically went around town, recorded all these sounds and then we created an installation using solenoid [actuators], like automatons. Like an automaton orchestra. We used a SuperCollider patch fed by all the field recordings that then triggered rhythmic patterns with the solenoids. What the solenoids played were found objects, like trash and random objects we found in the street. It was basically to explore the hidden rhythms of the city. Because often we think that you can only find interesting sounds out in the country, or you have to go to the jungle somewhere to find interesting soundscapes, but even though we have a lot of noise here and pollution, construction – you can still find interesting things in a city.

OC: Were there no field recordings that ended up in the final presentation of the work?

NY: They were played back simultaneously. They were played back in real time, but at the same time the software was being fed by the live playback.

OC: Did you compose a piece? Was it highly improvised? Was it structured improvisations?

NY: It was kind of loose compositions. We only used the pure field recordings, there wasn’t any processing or anything, just editing. We just rearranged it by themes. We had some ideas, like water, taking footsteps from different metros or outside, exploring different textures and things like that. So it was kind of loose, like maybe five- to six-minute segments, spread out with short sounds in between. But in terms of composition, I think more of the focus went into finding interesting rhythms in terms of how would it react live. It wasn’t us performing – it was these robots performing, these automatons performing. And that’s what we wanted, like kind of in a Dadaist way, to make it a bit humorous. We had these strange objects hanging off the ceiling and then these little arms hitting them. Sometimes they would work, sometimes they would break or fall to the floor, which made it interesting and very impromptu.

I did another performance on my own, related to my Nunavut project – a multi-channel sound performance with video. I think it was probably the first time I actually performed in a strictly gallery setting. So you know, you walk in, everyone’s quiet and sitting down and expecting the start of the performance, but I was doing soundscape at the same time as live rhythms and beats and stuff. It was interesting, not hearing people talking like in a bar setting. So that was fun, but it makes you think about the line between audio art or just live music.

OC: How do you understand the practice of sound mapping?

NY: Well, [with the Stein brothers] it is kind of scientific research. The way that they coded the database is amazing because you can say “okay I want a breathing sound”, you search for that, you’ll find a dog breathing, a human breathing… you can search for mechanical hand-operated machines, automated machines, very detailed. That’s what I found great, because it’s one thing to just archive the sounds, but you want to be able to search and kind of study how some sounds are more prevalent than others. And that’s what people in Vancouver were doing in the 1970s [with the World Soundscape Project]. But they were more concerned with noise pollution. What the Steins were doing and what I wanted to do with my project was to find compositions within the environment itself. And that was more so in my case. I think with the Montreal Sound Map it is different because it is open to the public – anyone can upload sounds – so it was more of an archive. Whereas mine… I collected the recordings, but also I was giving workshops there for kids up North. Sound art and field recording workshops. They were 11- to 14- or 15-year-old kids. They learnt how to use small Zoom H2 recorders and mini disks and we’d walk around the community and record. They caught on really fast, they were able to operate the machines, and so they uploaded some sounds to the sound map as well [http://www.inukjuaksoundmap.com].  My focus with this sound map was trying to give the idea of how there is music in the environment, but also conceptual ideas like how they’re integrating both Western ideals and technology with traditional Inuit technology. For instance, on my sound map there’s a recording of an elder Inuit man who’s carving a kayak, but in the background there’s a radio blaring The Rolling Stones. So just that sound, you listen to it and that speaks so many words – a depiction of everyday life. It’s very clear. That’s what I found interesting, and as I recorded sounds I started noticing subtleties like that, from a communications point of view, what it tells about the culture and where they’re moving – it’s no longer like the kind of naïve perception of Nanook of the North. 

OC: And how did they respond? Because mapping is a loaded term in places like that…

NY: The kids were really insightful. I would be recording a sound and they’d be like, “Okay well if you’re gonna go to that fishing dock tomorrow, I would suggest going in the morning because that’s when they load up and start getting ready. So there’s much more interesting sounds, you can get the sound of them preparing….” And so they knew already what’s going on and what you’re trying to capture. But then talking to elders, for instance I remember talking to the mayor of the town and he started right away… he started going off on these tangents about how the night before he opened up his window and he was listening to the music of the wind, you know, and the melodies, so he appreciated this guy coming from down South and trying to find the music of the North. He didn’t view it as hokey,  “who is this guy?” But he understood, “okay, yeah that makes sense, I understand what you’re trying to capture and what you’re trying to do with it.” I was surprised. I was really intimidated at first – I’m going to look like this strange guy with a microphone, recording everything. But people seemed to… they already know, they already appreciate these sounds…

OC: It sounds like they wanted to contribute and make sure that the map was not just representative of your kind of outside perspective, but that it integrated their sounds.

NY: And more realistic, you know, not just capturing the pretty sounds, but what life is. Whether it’s in the supermarket or it’s throat singers, or fishermen. So a more realistic approach.

OC: Do you think audio art is inherently conceptual?

NY: Very conceptual. That’s the thing. As opposed to music, which isn’t always conceptual, I mean obviously if you have lyrics it’s conceptual, but it’s more concerned with… I would say you can have conceptual art without having voice or lyrics or any kind of narration. The sound can be the narration itself, just by the way you layer sounds, it gives a narration on its own.

OC: Audio artists are often deliberately trying to explore… something. Maybe what they’re exploring only emerges in the process of doing some kind of random experimentation, but it quickly becomes refined. Things that you choose to limit yourself with become the concepts or the path through which you then generate your work. And I think that is a more deliberate type of method in audio art than in music.

NY: But I guess the interesting thing in terms of concept is that it could be problematic, in the sense that not all audio art is good, obviously…

OC: That’s the one thing I’m going to quote from you!

NY: Yeah [laughter]. Artists are often deemed successful based on how they present their concept to the public or to funding committees. However, I’ve often come upon artists with very interesting and significant concepts. But do they actually successfully realize their project, like from an aesthetic point of view? I’ve been to a lot of shows or gallery exhibitions where you read about it, it sounds intriguing but what’s going on? It’s not bringing me in, I don’t find it interesting. I find it’s important not to only depend on the concept, but to have performance, it’s good to think about the audience and the aesthetics of it. I’m not saying your piece needs to sound pretty. I just mean you need to give your audience something tangible to engage with, while still leaving room for interpretation.

Nimalan Yoganathan is a Montreal sound artist and musician. He holds a B.Eng in Electrical Engineering (McGill) and BFA in Electroacoustic Studies (Concordia University). He focuses on the sculpting of field recordings within his works from his travels through bustling cities, desolate landscapes, and spiritual sites. Nimalan often attempts to mimic the timbral and rhythmic characteristics of such natural sounds using synthetic gestures. In a time when global communities are being plagued by noise pollution, he believes it is crucial to preserve and accentuate the subtle but musical sounds hidden all around us. He is the first artist to be funded by Conseil des Arts et des Lettres du Quebec’s recently established Nunavik Fund for the Arts and Literature program (in collaboration with Avataq Cultural Institute). His works have been disseminated internationally at festivals and venues including Chicago Calling, Tonic (NYC), Hartware Medien Kunst Verein (Berlin), MUTEK (Montreal), Suoni per il Popolo, Art’s Birthday, Darling Foundry, OBORO, and Société Des Arts Technologiques (SAT). 

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.