Experimental sound artist Francisco López has been long developing and delivering what he calls sonogenic composition, since 1980. He has an extensive discography and has presented his work in some of the world’s most prestigious institutions and has long maintained indulgences in cerebral minimalism. I’ve been fortunate to have witnessed his live performances on two continents, and enjoyed our conversation delving deeper into what he does. He was generous to share a few hard-to-find audioclips.
TJ Norris/Toneshift: Hello and thank you for connecting today Francisco, where are you located at the moment?
Francisco López: I’m currently based in the coastal dune ecosystem of The Hague but, as it has happened throughout my life with dramatically contrasting locations, that’s just a back-and-forth base for my constant traveling around the world.
Yanayacu [excerpt] – from Peruvian rainforest
TN: Having become familiarized with your work back in the latter 90s I was often struck by the way in which you’ve “untitled” your works but given most of them a number, but not all your work. Many visual artists do this (myself included) but not as many sound artists/composers. Does a title reveal too much? Can you speak about the significance of this?
FL: The numbering of pieces also has an old tradition in Western music, particularly in the glorious times of Absolute Music in the 19th century. Not giving titles to the pieces is obviously related with a perspective of open interaction between listener and work, which I personally consider essential to my understanding of music.
TN: I’ve seen you live, in two very different, but intimate settings (in 2007 at Holocene, Portland, OR on the same bill with Daniel Menche, as well as in Barcelona at the contemporary museum back in 2003). I think I may have been blindfolded on both occasions, effectively changing the sensory dynamic of the live experience. As we are primarily a visual species can you talk about this aspect of your presentation – is it about deprivation, or about trusting your subconscious?
FL: More about trusting the performer, I’d say. Primarily about trying to generate a cryptic ritual of sound immersion. Being explicitly voluntary and collective, the use of the blindfold might, in the right hands, become an act of dedication, play, focus and penetration into sonic matter. Temporary sensory deprivation is always a revealing exercise. So it is, I believe, with the blindfold in the context of my performances, where such a deliberate monomedia environment propels individual spirit in a magnified listening experience.
TN: Field recording has really blossomed internationally in the past decade. In many ways I view those who choose to record on location, capturing the peace and wrath of nature, to be in this peculiar space between art and science. I’d imagine that it takes much patience to ascertain the right time and place. Any thoughts on your more recent in-situ experiences?
FL: I don’t feel connected to the current realm of so-called “field recordings”. To me, with a few honorable exceptions, it has become a canonical practice plagued with clichés, unfounded claims, prejudices and, frankly, quite tedious results. I have very little interest in representation, which, with many variants and forms, is the overwhelmingly predominant paradigm in this field. To be sure, this is just one among many realms where this zeitgeist manifests, as historically we’re now living through an unprecedented maelstrom of mega-representation. This is obviously good for tele-communication but a sneaky corrosive agent for (ontological) substance. To me, sounds are as much “things” (in the ontological sense) as anything else. They’re not properties of sources; in the most relevant sense, they do not belong to them. And that’s why and how they become existential “rabbit holes”. Compared to that, representation is child’s play.
TN: In firm agreement.
Now, with nearly four decades of recording found and synthesized sounds, despite all the incredible technological advances and inventions over those years, what have you always relied on in the studio and/or in the field when approaching your work? And conversely, are there methods you used early on that you can explain having completely abandoned?
FL: My ears, naturally 😉 I believe the best tools are spiritual, not technical. I’ve always used very simple, common, off-the-shelf, widespread technical tools. Looking for exclusive or super-special tools is in most cases a waste of time. Or perhaps is actually looking in the wrong place, at least for me.
TN: Breakdown for us, if you will, the way in which physics may play a part in your work, is it happenstance or some other form of manipulated frequency/vibration or transmission/compression as medium?
FL: Instead of physics, meta-physics. Not as an esoteric realm, though, but rather concretely and substantially, as in so-called object-oriented-ontology.
TN: I appreciate the flip there. I once saw some incredible sound pieces that were more like sketchy line drawings by Terre Thaemlitz who arrived in the public realm around the same time as you did for me. The approach seemed to be akin to Imagist poetry. How about your original compositions — how do they take form? Are they on paper, electronic format, improvised, combination thereof?
FL: Procedurally, I refer to my work as “sonogenic composition”. That means that sounds are not just elements to be “organized” or placed into an already existing framework (i.e., “samples”, recordings “of” things…) but rather that sounds themselves generate time, space, structure, aesthetic constructs… That’s why I see the oft-repeated “music is organized sound” as one of the poorest descriptions/definitions of what music could possibly be.
TN: As many will find in your work the often most minimal of granular sounds are emitted leading to what seemingly are additional layers that come off like a campfire or are hive-like (Lopez Island, 2007), or whitenoise (Mavje, 2005). Other works of yours are practically inaudible (Presque Tout/Quiet Pieces: 1993-2013). I was initially drawn to a work such as La Selva (1998) that pledged a sense of ‘tropical’ and tended towards a sense of dis/locating the listener – perhaps a place that one wouldn’t ever find themselves in, but by virtue of listening you become transported. Can you speak about your work as document, or how you wish your audience to explore this more deeply?
FL: I have no artistic/musical interest in documentation. I’ve never seen any of my work as anything like that. To me, that’s precisely one of the most interesting consequences/lessons –not really a paradox- of many years immersed in rainforests. Documentation is futile, irrelevant and misleading. To emphasize this in the midst of the rampant nature recordings’ simulation entertainment micro-industry, in the liner notes of the original “La Selva” release (created with recordings and experience from the Costa Rican rainforest) I explicitly referred to Magritte’s work “This is Not a Pipe”. Besides that, I personally consider “La Selva” to be a very immature piece (albeit formative). I’m much more proud of many other later rainforest-based pieces, like “Belu”, for example (from recordings and experience in Myanmar).
TN: Location. Are there any particular locations in which you’ve traveled that have posed particularly difficult barriers or complexities that you may never have anticipated?
FL: That’d be predominantly human-created barriers/constraints. Once, while recording in an abandoned factory, I had to confront a guy with a gun and an axe…
TN: That sounds a bit off-putting, scary.
TN: While I imagine the sonic intimacy of your aesthetic is critical to your practice, in fact, you have collaborated with countless other artists. If you don’t mind saying something about navigating the shared space of the creative process…
FL: I personally find true collaboration to be an immense challenge. I love sharing the sonic generative part of it; I find it fruitful and joyful. When we get to more compositional / structural terrain I find it almost impossible to share. I find improvisation, for example, great for the first task and useless and unappealing for the second. But that’s just my personal take on it.
TN: You have stayed true to a certain aesthetic field over your career. It’s not quite in the realm of ‘sleep concert’ nor is it with the density of much industrial work produced over the past few decades – rather you explore the chasm, the in-between (similar in context to the work by philosophers: G. W. F. Hegel and Emmanuel Lévinas). Are you familiar with Foucault’s utopian idea of space? What initially influenced your interest in this environment of spacial perception, and what keeps you exploring these devices?
FL: Well, you can’t really stay true to what you are, so that’s an easy one 😉 I personally don’t feel affinity to either Hegel or Levinas. Rather to Heidegger, Cioran, Baudrillard, Rancière, Lash and Harman, to name a few. A main philosophical interest that has been dramatically revealed or reinforced by the sonic experience for me is the depth of interaction with the world. Both the representational and the instrumental (particularly in its current pseudo-political form) -dominant today- are the antithesis of what I consider to be profound, powerful, revealing and substantial. Space and and time qua simulacra are caricatures of such imaginable framework conduits to inhabit the world with any significant level of interaction.
TN: In a published statement (circa 2009) you said “the attempt to present sound in an anthropomorphic way…I would argue that the most intense and successful synaesthetic experiences have been inspired when a sight, smell, etc. collided with a sound that was not being overlaid by unequivocally ‘human’ elements.” Have put this type of direct experience with your audience to the test in a hands-on installation format? How do you cyclically involve the activated audience (who presumably have experienced a feeling of ‘synesthesia’) in this larger conversation?
FL: I think that the most interesting form of multi/trans-media is the one that takes place inside the body, rather than outside of it.
TN: I have imagined works like yours being presented in a planetarium setting. Are there any specific places in which, without any restrictions, you’d like to present work that you haven’t to date?
FL: I have performed in planetariums a number of times. When the matching between space and sound system is decent (not always the case), it’s all good. Otherwise, an impressive space might not deliver such an impressive sonic experience. I’ve also performed in many classical music concert halls. What I’d love to do, that I haven’t yet had the opportunity to do, is to work –as you say, without restrictions- with a full classical orchestra. I know what I could do and how to do it.
TN: That sounds quite exciting. Any final words about what’s in-progress?
FL: Some ten new releases coming out in different formats, e.g., a USB 8-hour edition with “machinic” works (“VirtuAural Electro-Mechanics”) from the past twenty five years… Loads of new compositions in the making from many past recording and listening expeditions: Borneo, Australia, Cambodia, Bolivia, South Africa, Madagascar, the Faroe Islands… Curating an exhibition on social audio art for the Spanish National Museum of Contemporary Art – presenting the work of one thousand artists…
More Francisco López on Bandcamp.