Where Sound and Tech Intersect: an Interview with Tim Shaw
Tim Shaw is a musician, composer and sound designer whose work explores concepts around the aural interaction between human beings and the environment they live in, and how the use of ambient sound as a mode of communication can impact a community and our relationship to landscape’, working with field recordings, synthesized sounds and live electronics and drawing inspiration from both natural landscapes and urban environments. Last year, he and the sound designer/programmer Sébastien Piquemal collaborated to create the project FIELDS, which has toured through Finland, Portugal, Germany and the UK, including London’s iconic electronic music hub Cafe OTO; a groundbreaking performance, the audience found themselves also as performers as the music was distributed and played back through their smartphones. He also manages the record label Triptik, whose roster reflects a diverse range of contemporary electronic artists. Here, we delve into the notion of creativity and get an insight into his practice in this abstract, open and – in some ways – extremely new area of the art world.
Q: You have worked across a wide range of media and created a very diverse portfolio; where do you get ideas from, and how do you decide on technologies and techniques to realise them?
It’s difficult to articulate exactly where my ‘ideas’ come from, it is definitely not distillable to one single circumstance; I can only say that inspiration often comes at unexpected times and within unexpected places. I don’t think that my engagement with technology and my ideas are necessarily separated. I try to engage with technologies as creative materials. Sometimes the computer (or technological device) throws back unexpected outcomes; it can have its own set of possibilities and nuances, it can have its own autonomy. To me, that’s when creative technological work gets really interesting.
Q: What, to you, is creativity – does it come from a particular place or set of circumstances?
Creativity is appropriating the material around you to create opportunities to view the world differently.
Q: Making art, especially when you have to create new tools and techniques, can be incredibly demanding in terms of both time and energy. How do you maintain a balance between your career and the inescapable general responsibilities of adult life?
It’s a hard one, I actually don’t think I do this very well. I’m always thinking about work or what has to be done next.
Q. What do you think are the most exciting developments in music tech at the moment? Thinking of, say, music apps for phones or iPads, gesture control technology, smart fabrics?
A: All of these developments are potentially exciting but it’s really what people do with these tools that make things interesting. I have seen some great performances and installations with a whole variety of technologies but I have also seen some really badly executed things. If the technology is just a means to an end then it really doesn’t excite me. Its when people use, abuse, misuse and appropriate these tools to create something meaningful, that’s when things open up and become thought-provoking. A very compelling movement within digital technologies at the moment is the open source community. There is a really accepting, generous and cutting edge bunch of people who produce work without necessarily conforming to a commercial or capitalist drive. I am hugely grateful to many of its contributors, it has helped me no end.
Q: Have you invented any tools or materials to use in your work?
A: I have built systems, performance tools and installations using open platforms such as Pure Data, Arduino, Raspberry Pi and other things that I stumble across. For my performance, Carboniferous, I use a digital microscope to scan various rock textures and then translate these images into sound. I draw on various image-to-sound techniques developed by early Russian sound artists including Murzin’s ANS synthesiser, developed in 1937. In this piece I am not really inventing anything, just re-appropriating ideas with contemporary media. The Fields project I have been working on with creative programmer Sébastian Piquemal uses the audience’s phones as an array of loudspeakers during an experimental sound performance. Sébastian has built the whole system from scratch, which is available as an open source project, and we have collaborated on the sound design using WebPD (Pure Data running on the web). This is a totally bespoke system built especially for the performance but the systematic things are very much led by Séb, we test things out and perform collaboratively. This is very different to using a piece of commercially released software, it has its risks but that keeps things exciting.
Fields in action.
Q: Is there a difference between the acts of performing and composing in your work?
I guess the question is where do you draw the line between the two? I actually think they are both interrelated. Whenever I perform improvisationally I am composing live. Within the same breath, whenever I am building an installation, or a composition, I am performing, performing with the environment, or the software or the people I am working with at the time.
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Q: What do you derive from your work, and what (if anything) do you hope others will derive from it?
I would like to think my work directly engages with a variety of materials. I have engaged with sounds, archives, technologies, people and places as sources of creative materials. Recently my work has become much more of a collaborative process, I have been lucky enough to work with a whole range of different practitioners including Chris Watson and John Bowers. I have also made collaborative work with astrophysicists and medieval musicologists.
Q: What has been the impact of tech and music coming together, democratising music production, distribution and consumption? Has it changed the world? Has it made it a better place?
A: ‘Tech’ and music have been bed buddies for over 100 years, even electronic music has a long lineage which is often overlooked (this is a great website: http://120years.net/). Technology can sometimes be seen as this new, glorious thing but we’ve been using various technologies, sciences and instruments to build musical tools for centuries. In that way, I ask the question, what has really changed? Of course, the distribution of music has accelerated in recent times due to digitisation and the Internet, and I think that’s great. These platforms can open up new opportunities and allow artists to bypass major labels and reach a global audience from the comfort of their own bedroom. A really interesting area of tech and music is computational creativity; it will be really exciting to see how audiences receive this in the near future.
Q: Do you think the arts and tech can have real, concrete impact on the world?
A: Yes. The most important thing is to create a positive engagement between artist and public. Some work out there is just presented in a gallery, with some impenetrable and ambiguous text and that can sometimes make it hard for people to understand and appreciate, I have definitely felt this frustration. I think it’s also within the artists remit to open up their process, to allow people to see and hear how and why they made the work. This should be done genuinely, without having a detrimental effect on the way the artwork is made. Obviously this isn’t always possible but I think a considered participatory process can really add value to a piece of work.
Q: What does it take for a creative project or individual to succeed? In the overcrowded, hyper-connected world of the Internet, what makes something stand out from the crowd and become a success?
Experimentation, passion and originality are three traits that immediately come to mind.
Q: Why is audiovisual art so powerful? Is there a point to it; what can it say (if anything)?
Like anything, it can be awesome but it can also be awful. It depends on the work, context, execution and presentation. When its good, and you create meaningful interactions between sound and visuals, it can be truly absorbing.
Q: The process of bringing a complex project to completion can be incredibly long, and sometimes the goal can sound completely crazy. What is it that makes you decide to undertake a large or difficult project, and what keeps you going through the process?
I used to say yes to everything. I’m a little bit more choosey about the work I do now. I also do much more traveling then I used to, so that takes up a lot of time.
Q: It’s always fantastic to find out what work professionals are currently into. Are there any new artists, installations, exhibitions you’re excited by?
A: Within electronic music I really like M.E.S.H, Brassica, Mumdance, Leon Vynehall (amongst many others) and lots of the stuff on the PAN and Touch labels. The meeting of all the electronic genres that have come out of the UK in the last 20 years are consistently being mangled together in such an enjoyable way.
Earlier this year, I played a gig on the same bill as Tetsuya Umeda at Café OTO in London. His performance was incredible, a minimal approach to acoustic sound objects, building kinetic mechanisms live and pretty much entirely acoustically. It was great to hear an artist working in this way, away from digital technology and creating a really captivating sound space.