Playing with Bits, Pieces, and Lightning Bolts: An Interview with Sound Artist Andrea Parkins
Editor’s Note: Welcome to Sounding Out!‘s fall series titled “Sound and Play,” where we ask how sound studies, as a discipline, can help us to think through several canonical perspectives on play. While Johan Huizinga had once argued that play is the primeval foundation from which all culture has sprung, it is important to ask where sound fits into this construction of culture; does it too have the potential to liberate or re-entrench our social worlds? SO!’s regular contributor Maile Colbert interviews sound artist Andrea Parkins and gets her to talk about her creative process, and the experience of playing with sound, composition, and instruments.–AT
In 2003, working towards my graduate degree in Integrated Media at California Institute for the Arts, I met and worked with a visiting artist by the name of Andrea Parkins, with whom I became a friend and colleague. Although I’ve been familiar with her work for more than a decade, every time I see Andrea perform my mind is blown. And, every time we discuss her practice, her methodology, and her thoughts on art and work, I’m always compelled and inspired in my own practice as a sound artist. In particular, I am impressed by her insights on the relationship between art, play, and the act of improvisation. The interview that follows is both a sampling of the conversations we have been gifted with throughout the years and a rare opportunity to listen in to the creative process of a working sound artist.
1. Hi Andrea, how are you today? What are you in the middle of?
I’m well – working on a number of different projects at the moment, including preparing for a residency at Q-02: workspace for experimental music and sound art, in Brussels, where I’m going to be working on a new multi-diffusion sound piece, addressing the interaction of moving objects with human gesture in idiosyncratic acoustical spaces. I’m also working on some new recordings – one is a catalogue of short pieces, combining electric accordion-generated feedback with processed field recordings; and another incorporates 15 short object-based electronic pieces into a live ensemble work.
2. Can you describe your entrance into the world of sound and music?
I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, acutely aware of the drones and sonic events in the surrounding rural landscape. At the same time my early experience of sound through my teens resided in realm of the “musical” and the social; it connoted family (nearly all of my family members were/are musicians, and music and sound was always present); culture; and musical practice as ritual. Most family members were serious classical musicians, some were rock musicians and singer/songwriters; some were both. I studied classical piano from the age of 6 through my early twenties, and from the beginning had access to and absorbed a wide range of musics– immediately attracted to dissonance, or music with subtle harmonic and timberal changes. After high school, I moved to Boston and studied jazz piano and free improvisation. In my early 20s, I bought an analog synth, and experimented with oscillators and filters, playing synth in punk, free jazz, and new wave bands. Probably most important in my sonic development was that I went to art school and in that context began making experimental films and video, drawings and installation. I believe that my exposure to non-narrative film especially had a profound effect on how I began thinking of compositional possibilities for sound, and about art that happens in time, and also space
3. Speaking of worlds, what is the line experienced, if there is one, between the experimental sound art world and improvisation? How did you find yourself with one foot in each of these worlds, and how do you navigate between them?
While I know that some artists and theorists do draw a line between sound art and improvisational “music” performance, I don’t usually think about it that way, and for the most part that is not how I experience my relationship with sound. Having said this, I recognize that there are communities that identify themselves as one thing or the other, and performance and exhibition spaces that are organized based on one side or the other of this dichotomy, so at times I do have to “navigate between them.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: this allows artists to build a common discourse around their particular focus, and can even develop a creative legacy among artists. For myself, I try to think about my intentions regarding a particular installation or performance: especially in consideration of site and audience, and formulate language around this that can speak to the specifics of the situation.
4. And being a woman in these worlds, have you found a difference between when you were starting out and now? Have you found a difference within the generations you work with?
I believe that for younger women, things have changed a lot: peer communities of young artists are more integrated gender-wise, and it seems that there are many more women worldwide are active and visible as experimental musicians and sound artists than when I began. I came “of age” at a different juncture and did not have this experience. To some extent this was because of the class and milieu that I came from, which meant there was no model in front of me. I do think this would have been mitigated if I had learned sooner about some of the female innovators of electronic music, among them: Bebe Barron, Wendy (Walter) Carlos, Eliane Radigue, Maryanne Amacher, Laurie Spiegel, and Pauline Oliveros. This exposure came later.
When I began working as an improvising musician, I found myself on the periphery, and never wholly part of, a group of mostly male colleagues. There were aspects to this experience that I actually now appreciate. It had value because I remained in the position of an outsider, and while I felt some sense of displacement because of this, it allowed me to develop my own critique of whatever prevailing processes and products were happening at that time, and a new assessment of what I wanted to create. I should mention that when working alone or in collaboration in other forms: intermedia, sound and performance installation, I have found that these contexts offer a more inclusive politics and discourse.
5. Something interesting came up in our last conversation that inspired me to change this question around a bit. Instead of asking you to talk about your works, and since our readers can access many different interviews, documents, and articles online, can you talk about how to talk about your work?
This is something I am learning how to do (yet again), as I become more aware that my work engages with multiple practices, multiple voices, multiple processes. It’s about beauty too (that dirty word) – in the sense that beauty (for me) is about viscerality, atmosphere, presence, fragility; this calls my attention to the physical space I am in and to how time is passing: that is to say, to mortality. Most recently I have been seeking different forms of sonic structure that are not based on “history” as forward motion, as a narrative driving through time, but that can allow for stasis, multiplicity, simultaneity, and chaos and acceptance of a potentially forward moving structure to fall totally apart.
Since 2005, in addition to exploring these modalities as an improviser and composer (for live instruments), I have been working to reintegrate a more interdisciplinary approach to my work – referencing the materiality of objects, and the body in motion, and engaging in wider range of sonic sources and processes, visual elements, and acoustical spaces. This has resulted in my creation of several fixed media works for the gallery/installation setting, as well as some electronic music pieces scored only for objects.
6. The term improvisation confuses a lot of people, and can be hard to articulate. What does it mean to you? And within improv, what does “work” and what does “play” means to you?
Speaking most simply, improvisation is (for me) a series of compositional decisions made in real time that are then immediately acted upon, with acute attention: to self, other, site and context. Being an improviser entails so much listening (to oneself and others, at the same time) and also connecting with others while maintaining one’s own sonic space/language; in a way it’s social and interiorized process at the same time. So it’s work! You are — at times – straining your ears; listening for the clues for what others are “saying,” even if they are not quite saying it. Perhaps this even involves a kind of telepathy. However, at its best moments it can be exhilarating work; there can be lively engagement among fellow performers — or when performing alone when moving among one’s own sonic materials and instruments – that is highly stimulating and fun.
7. Is there a hierarchy of process versus presentation for you?
I often find that my best-laid plans must be jettisoned because I have an idea or epiphany that suddenly strikes me, and it just won’t wait. For me, these “lightening bolts” often quickly resolve into having to face a challenging new work process — challenging perhaps because I have been afraid that somehow it won’t produce a result that I can readily identify as successful. But the old ways will always be there, and in the meantime it is possible that by trying something else, a new discovery will come that transforms everything – including the way I think about what a “successful result” should look like. I now feel that the notion of a “successful result” in itself has become pretty relative, and in some cases, a moot point. This is because what I now define as successful can often have much to do with my assessment of the process I employ in making something, rather than how well I have fulfilled the requirements of a pre-meditated structure: the result. This has made my engagement with my work much more open-ended in a way that I have learned to appreciate over time.
For me, composition mostly happens in the editing: that is where I find (uncover, sculpt) structure from the sound that I collect and/or record, building up a mass of material from which I can “find the piece” through editing, assemblage and layering. I think this is similar to the way some filmmakers might shoot video/film and then from raw footage hone in on or discover a film’s structure via the editing process. I like the idea that instead of filling a pre-ordained structure with content one can move the content around until the structure emerges. Maybe one recognizes the completed structure when one sees it. I like to remember that a structure, even if unusual, asymmetric, messy, seemingly random, or just plain weird – if that is what emerges – is still a structure, howsoever idiosyncratic. And it can be presented.
8. Can you talk about differences between performance vs. play and performance vs. studio to you, and your relationship with the instruments you play?
In 2002, I began developing a MAX-based extended processing instrument inspired by Rube Goldberg and his machines. It has built into its programming seemingly “randomized” sonic processing that highlights and/or alters specific frequencies and densities, with emphasis on repetitions, interruptions, stasis and malfunction. When I began working with the instrument, I was exploring processes related to Fluxus in my compositional and improvisational practices. I was also thinking about a kind of poetics that I saw as related to my independent studies in feminist and psychoanalytic theory, and to the body of an improvising performer who is up against the limits of his or her own virtuosity. Once I designed the instrument I realized there really was a connection to these things – and to how approach decision-making as an artist – the importance of chance – but also slippage and failure and moments of physical awkwardness as what I try to accomplish on a technical level comes perilously (and for me, interestingly) close to falling apart – especially when performing with multiple instruments in simultaneity. My virtual instrument is a collaborative partner who doesn’t cooperate. It makes “sense and non-sense,” The slippage and failure relates to meaning, and for me is a metaphor for loss or displacement. For me, this is important … to me this is daily, everyday life.
Featured Image Photo Credit: Julia Berg 2010
Andrea Parkins is a composer, sound/installation artist and improvising electroacoustic performer who engages with interactive electronics as compositional/performative process, and explores strategies related to Fluxus’ ordered, ephemeral activities. She is a key participant in the New York sound art and experimental music scene, and worldwide she is known for her pioneering gestural/textural approach on her electronically-processed accordion and self-designed virtual sound-processing instruments. Described as a “sound-ist,” of “protean,” talent by The New York Times music critic Steve Smith, Parkins’ laptop electronics and Fender-amped accordion create sonic fields of lush harmonics and sculpted electronic feedback, punctuated by moments of gap and rift. Her work has been presented at the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Kitchen, Diapason, and Experimental Intermedia; and international festivals/venues including Mexico City’s 1st International Sound Art Festival, NEXT in Bratislava, Cyberfest in St. Petersberg, and q-02 in Brussels. Parkins’ recordings have been published by Important Records, Atavistic, and Creative Sources, and her work has received support from American Composers Forum, NYSCA, the French-American Cultural Exchange, Meet the Composer, Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center, and Frei und Hanseastadt Hamburg Kulturbehoerde. Parkins is on faculty at Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program.
Maile Colbert is a multi-media artist with a concentration on sound and video who relocated from Los Angeles, US to Lisbon, Portugal. She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
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Sounding Boards and Sonic Styles: The Music of the Skatepark
Welcome back to our summer series on “Sound and Sport.” In today’s post, Josh Ottum discusses the sonorous sounds and unique rhythms of the sport of skateboarding. For an instant replay of last month’s post, click Tara Betts‘s “Pretty, Fast, and Loud: The Audible Ali.” For May’s post, click Melissa Helquist‘s “Goalball: Sport, Silence, and Spectatorship.” Next month’s grand finale will feature a doubleheader on Brasil, with a post by Kariann Goldschmitt on the promotional sounds of FIFA 2014 and a podcast by Andrea Medrado entitled “The Sounds of Rio’s Favelas: Echoes of Social Inequality in an Olympic City.” We’ll close with another take on the Olympics, excerpted from David Hendy‘s recent Noise broadcasts for BBC Radio 4 on the politics of boos at the games. For now, get out your board, strap on your helmet, and prepare to jam. —J. Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief
Seven layers of screen-printed, sugar pine maple whack the concrete. Aluminum axles pivot on rubber bushings as they slide across steel coping. Circular, molded polyurethane encases lubricated bearings that spin in midair before slamming onto birch. Vocal cords are strained as exclamations are made in response to a maneuver. These are the unmistakeable sounds of the skatepark. As skaters ride through the park, a unique sonic tapestry emerges revealing a constantly shifting array of timbre, pitch, and rhythm. This sliding aural space is similar to the compositional flow between rehearsed maneuvers and improvisatory actions, connecting skaters in the skatepark to musicians improvising in a jam session.
Just as the results of a musical performance depend on acoustics of the venue and the idiosyncrasies of the instrument, the skater is beholden to a similarly complex signal chain. The aural atmosphere of the skatepark relies on the number of other players, as well as their chosen instruments, and unique approach to playing. While surveying the sonic and social dynamics of four skateparks in Ohio and California for this study, the line between performer and listener was often unclear. Skaters are consistently sliding between roles as passive observers and active participants, watching and being watched, making sound and listening to the sounds of others. And, just as an improvising musician aims to develop her own unique voice, the skater intertwines sonic and visual elements into a unique stylistic signature all her own. In this study I will look at the skatepark as a site for skaters to express themselves much in the same way that a musician plays an instrument at a jam session. I will explore the board and terrain, the importance of style, and the culture of the park itself. To begin, I will contextualize the ways in which the skateboard has been constructed as a sonic instrument.
As a skater lands an ollie in the Vans Skatepark in Orange, California, the sound of hard polyurethane wheels slamming against a hollow birch ramp emanates throughout the warehouse, entangling with distinctive sounds made by other participants. The listener is made acutely aware of each skater’s instrument and stylistic approach to performance. What differentiates the rider on a board in the skatepark from a guitarist playing in a rock club? Just as the materials of the electric guitar and its signal chain inform the sonic nature of the instrument, the skateboard and its engaged terrain sound out unique and identifiable characteristics of each device. I spoke with a skater at Flipside Skateboard Shop in Athens, Ohio about the specifics of wheel construction and his own personal preferences:
Just like the layered wood of an electric guitar body, boards are made through a multistep manufacturing process that involves layering thin plies of wood. Maple is most commonly used with the relative flexibility of the deck determining qualities of audible resonance as a skater ollies or railslides. And trucks, which function as axles, can be heard grinding along a surface such as pool coping, a painted curb, or a handrail.
In order for these materials to make sound they must be controlled by a rider and engage with some kind of terrain. The combination of what materials are chosen and how they are used result in a rider’s unique approach. In the skatepark, skaters swathe themselves in clothing, pads, and helmets while riding devices wrapped in visual signposts of self-expression that sound out the priorities of the particular rider.
Following Henri Lefebvre, Iain Borden speaks of the skateboard as a “lived component of the body, its actions and its self-image in relation to the terrain” (28). Similarly, from my time spent at skateparks in Ohio and California, I have noted the malleability of terrain as a domain to express one’s own unique style. Skaters use their devices as instruments, playing the park, repeating phrases, overlapping with sounds emitted from their peers. All the while, advertisements adorn both bodies and instruments and maneuvers mimic the iconic moves of sponsored skaters viewed in magazines. Visiting Focus Boardshop across the street from the Etnies Skatepark in Lake Forest, California reminds the observer that the elusive, focal point of style in the world of skateboarding is not only confined to the visual realm. As reissued decks from Powell Peralta, Slimeball wheels, and multiple videos adorn the walls of the shop, teenage skaters hang out, asking to bend and stand on decks and spin wheels, all the while watching and listening to newly released videos. Just as guitars and synthesizers reflect the users aesthetic outlook, the look and sound of skateboards signal to a skater’s audience (often other skaters in the park) what kind of skater he or she is.
Tara Rodgers’ insightful article on wood paneling on synthesizers for Sounding Out! has its analogue in the spiritual aura of the object in skateboarding. Bound up in this aura are genre-shaping histories that have taken the sport in innumerable directions. Whether it is the catwalk ethos of Vision Street Wear, Danny Way’s connection with Monster and Red Bull energy drinks, or enjoi’s self-referential marketing, the graphics that wrap around skate gear carry with them weighty connections to the sport’s most original moments. These moments are, of course, defined by marketing campaigns, hosted in influential magazines such as Thrasher and Transworld, and the zietgeist of the time. Intertwined with these branded materials is the sonic quality of the instrument. The sound of the instrument itself reflects the particular ethos of the skater who selected it. In the clip below, an employee working at Focus Boardshop in Lake Forest, California talks about the particular way his board’s sound reflects the idiosyncratic nature of its components. Notice how he skater speaks about the sound of his bearings as a direct link to his style, connecting to Borden’s idea of the board as a lived component of the body.
During my visit to the community skatepark in Athens, Ohio I come across two skaters who have returned to the sport after a two-decade break. One skater sports a longboard with 70a wheels so soft you can’t hear him skate through the concrete pool. Immediately after interacting with the longboarder, another skater finishes a session in the pool at the Athens skatepark with a long slide. I ask him about the role of his wheels and what he calls “the best sound in the world”:
Skaters related the histories of their boards to me with a sense of fond nostalgia. These histories functioned, primarily, as a mode of individuation, through which those observed were seen refining their identities within the community through conversation. As more time is spent at each of the parks, I begin to notice communal flows of conversation between skaters and their engaged terrain as well. Competitive aspects to out-do each other, synchronized maneuvers, and vocal responses are percolate the soundscape. As listeners perform and performers listen, connections with well-formed cultural codes of improvisational music begin to emerge.
Jamming the Skatepark
Improvising musicians often use the context of the jam session as an opportunity work out new ideas and rehearse repertoire. Minton’s Playhouse in New York is one of the original sites for the jazz jam session. Here, “cutting contests” allowed players the opporunity to outplay each other with virtuosic displays of improvisational prowess. Musicians play to hear each other individually and as a unit, often pushing each other to extremes. The sound is composed, listened to, and then reacted to. Skateparks provide a similar atmosphere. A trick (like an ollie) is immersed in the sonic flows of the surrounding skaters. The skatepark is simultaneously encouraging and competitive, forgiving and relentless.
When I visited the Vans Skatepark on National Go Skateboarding Day park employees tempted skaters to display their best moves throughout the park with the promise of free swag. The environment remained friendly and encouraging as skaters rose to the challenge, welcoming the pressure.
The rituals of the skatepark are varied in their scope. When a skater lands a difficult trick, it is common to hear the tapping of board tails on the ground; applause. Vocal reactions to maneuvers (landed or failed) are also quite common.
What sets the sonic atmosphere of the skatepark apart from the sound of skating outside the park is the palpable lack of intruding sounds from the outside world. As communities continue to accept the skatepark as part of their permanent landscape, the once transgressive sound of the sport takes on a new meaning. The scrapes and slides that once signaled intrusion are now contained in a controlled space. While visiting these jam sessions, it became clear that the sounds of the skatepark remain a mostly male-dominated activity. While the instruments and terrain remain available to the wider public the sound of the skatepark reflects a relatively closed environment often shrouded in platitudes of youth culture. However, once a sense of acceptance and experimentation is cultivated, some other aspects of the skatepark are revealed. The skatepark is a place to play and explore the range of one’s repertoire. It is a place to engage with the limitations of the instrument and one’s own physical faculties. And, it is an environment that encourages friction, noise, and distortion. The skatepark is a communal amplifier, obscuring and reflecting sound as the players immerse themselves in the ultimate sounding board.
While immersing myself in the sounds of the skatepark for this project, the idea came up to reimagine the sounds of the skatepark as a musical composition. I asked musicians Michael Deakers, Casey Foubert, Junior High, and Ryan Richter to make a piece that used any portion of the recordings of the four skateparks I visited. Their work reflects a deep connection to the rehearsed and improvisational aspects of music-making and skateboarding. The sounds of these pieces emerged from hours of practice and spontaneous decisions allowing for a particularly effervescent creative outcome. To hear these, check out out my Soundcloud here.
Featured Image, “Grinding” courtesy of Luke Hayfield Photography
Josh Ottum holds an MFA in Integrated Composition Improvisation and Technology from UC Irvine and is currently a PhD student at Ohio University in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts. His research interests include sound, energy extraction, Van Dyke Parks, Southern California, library music, and synthesizers. As a singer-songwriter, composer, and producer, Josh has released multiple records on various labels, completed numerous international tours, and composed music that has appeared on MTV, AMC’s Mad Men, and NPR.
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