by Ely Rosenblum
In October 2015, I met with sound artist and scholar Christof Migone in his home in Toronto, Ontario. We discussed his path into sound studies research and practice, the ethnographic value of sonic research, and his upcoming performance of Hit at Nuit Blanche.
Migone is an artist, curator and writer. His work and research delve into language, voice, bodies, performance, intimacy, complicity and endurance. He co-edited the book and CD Writing Aloud: The Sonics of Language (Los Angeles: Errant Bodies Press, 2001) and his writings have been published in Aural Cultures, S:ON, Experimental Sound & Radio, Musicworks, Radio Rethink, Semiotext(e), Angelaki, Esse, Inter, Performance Research, etc.
A book compiling his writings on sound art, Sonic Somatic: Performances of the Unsound Body was published in 2012 by Errant Bodies Press. He has been the recipient of commissions from the Tate Modern, Dazibao, Kunstradio, Centre for Art Tapes, New Adventures in Sound Art, Radio Canada, New American Radio. He is a founding member of Avatar (Québec City). He currently lives in Toronto and is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Visual Arts at Western University in London, Ontario.
Ely Rosenblum: How did you find your way into sound studies?
Christof Migone: I guess the earliest would be when I started my undergraduate in the early 80s at Carleton University in Ottawa. I wanted to be a biochemist, and I was in the first year sciences. I was doing the usual array of prerequisites including chemistry, physics and biology. But I took an elective in philosophy that really broadened my view of the world and in conjunction with that I became friends with a group of people and one of them did a radio show. And then I got my own show. For me that is the beginning. But it took a while before the notion of radio art, not to mention the broader field of sound, entered my consciousness. My father who is retired now, was a simultaneous translator for the United Nations. That filtered through as well. His love of languages, his index cards. He would beef up on certain terminologies when a conference was coming up. So that attention to language had some influence. Communication and its necessary antidotes, silence and miscommunication, became a focus for me. I usually introduce myself as a sound artist, but I am also very intent in my practice to blur the lines between media and their connected disciplines—not simply for the sake of ambiguity (though I consider it an attribute on its own), but because often the concepts I develop are not medium specific.
ER: There seems to be a trend amongst practitioners of Sound Studies, especially anthropologists and ethnographers who are interested in sociolinguists and then move on to recording. Can you venture a guess as to why that would be the case?
CM: I think a lot of it comes back to the voice. It is an immediate, ready-made instrument that we all have and that says so much about ourselves. It is a main conduit of social relations. It can be manipulated in innumerable ways; linguistically and musically; it can be muted strategically. It is often the first step: the first word. The voice is a key identifier so it makes sense that we gravitate towards it and sometimes get stuck there. We often take for granted that the act of saying “hello” to each other but for me this mundane gesture is such a momentous thing. That doesn’t quite answer your question, so I’ll attempt something general, it seems to me that for those professions recordings would obviously play a key role in data collection. And once one acknowledges that the apparatus utilized to gather such data is inherently not neutral, then one must pay attention to recording itself—from the technology employed to the methodology used in gathering recordings.
ER: [Like] Prof Connor claim (see my first post and Steven Connor’s “Acousmania”) I too make the claim sound studies is not a discipline but a field: one that is dispersed amongst multiple disciplines in the arts and humanities but also in the sciences. That is something that has been ignored by those who are incredibly excited about sound studies journals, and more sound studies conference than have ever existed. I’m wondering if you agree or disagree, and if you think there is some kind of disciplinary foothold that sound studies might take for it to stick.
CM: Whenever I try to think of the potential survival of sound studies within the academic realm or institutions, I think the best way to approach it is perversely. By this I mean that it would be interesting to speculate on a scenario whereby there will be an apex in the implementation of these programs and then a subsequent or simultaneous dismantlement, once it is realised to what extent sound as a discipline depends on such an arbitrarily set parameters. I would welcome a notion of sound studies that structurally integrates the sciences with the humanities. I think that it’s a totally legitimate exercise to insist on the importance of sound and therefore sound studies given the ever growing body of literature and practices, but as long as one is careful to frame them provisionally and always within an interdisciplinary set of connections. It is obviously a latecomer to the disciplinary hybrids that preceded it like cultural studies or performance studies. I think splintering is absolutely fine, though I think the interconnections are absolutely necessary to continuously highlight. I get concerned whenever someone detects the need to defend their territory. It seems very much prescriptive and ultimately unnecessary and driven by a perceived threat that is largely imaginary. For the sake of rigorous intellectual pursuit there are certain advantages in focusing and narrowing as long as it is acknowledged that it is a temporary line of investigation that ultimately cannot ignore what is to the left or right of it. Lastly I would add that, as hinted by my earlier reference to silence and miscommunication and some of my past writings, I would welcome a Department of Unsound Studies.
ER: When I have heard people say ‘there are no sound studies’ I often reply that if it is not a discipline or even a field it is at the very least a body of literature that offers strategies for thinking about sound and sound making. I find that to be very productive simply because it presumes that thinking about sound can be done within different fields.
CM: I had a discussion with a Canadian composer a few years ago. Every argument I could mount for sound as being separate from music, he kept folding it back into music. Ultimately I agreed with him only in so far that if one is able to expand one’s notion of music far enough then I guess that can be possible. However it seems very useful, strategically, not to do that…
ER: It also might set the premise for thinking about listening and recording as a documentary practice, and outside of musicological analysis.
CM: If we track the evolution of music and visual art, whereas visual art has a tendency to colonize through a resolute (though not innocent) open-endedness (the inheritance of Duchamp), where anything can be housed or welcome within that context, music is more territorial, more restrained, more sure that it already knows what it is. That being said museum architecture is well-known to be unwelcoming to soundwaves scurrying through its spaces, so that openness is not without its challenges. But MoMA just acquired Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room to its Permanent Collection, so there are institutional signs that point in the right direction. At this juncture I think that music could not even attempt to fold sound art back into it. Although I would be curious if that were to happen. I don’t know of any music institution that is doing that. But you’re right in pointing to the realms of ethnography, anthropology, sociology and education which you nicely encaspulate as ‘documentary practice’, all of those social sciences where the spoken word is integral to primary research. To use sound as a filter of analysis and methodological skew from within these longstanding research practices is bound to be revelatory or at least reinvigorating both for those fields and the non-discipline of sound studies.
Recorded by Sharon Dueck
ER: Let’s talk about your work and Hit. Hit has toured, or maybe tour isn’t the right word, it has been performed in a number of locations around the world.
CM: The piece that has shown plenty is Hit Parade. Hit Parade is specifically a performance where the performers are asked to start and then count to a thousand. There’s some structure, and it keep evolving within the basic premise of hitting to a thousand. With Hit, and this will only be the second time I have presented it, it is still the same gesture of hitting. But it’s no longer a count, but what determines the end is the duration of the event. So when I did it in Saskatoon for the Sounds Like festival I had two people hitting on the balcony through one particular evening’s set of festival events. What I would really like to do for this version of the performance is to have one or two people hitting throughout the duration of a festival, like a human clock that would run continuously over several days. Nuit Blanche really lends itself to that idea; obviously the time frame of the event in this case is sunset to sunrise. In this instance, given this duration and the mass audience dimension of it I decided to add some new components. This will be the first time that the performers’ hits will be fed into a mixer as opposed to being directly connected to an amp. In this case all the sounds are fed into a mixing board, and each hour there will be a different mixer diffusing the sound to an array of 13 speakers. It will be up to each mixer to decide how to transform the sound. The score for this piece, which is really a glorified schedule for this piece, determines the times when performers go on and off. Over the 12 hours performers perform for a total of 4 hours but not straight. They go on for sets of minimum 10 and maximum 25 minutes. There is a gradient, meaning that sometimes there is only one active person, and sometimes there are 13 and all the numbers in between. Every five minutes there is a change where at least one person goes on or off. This performance is part of the exhibition The Work of Wind, curated by Christine Shaw—the number 13 corresponds to the different gradients of wind, the Beaufort scale. As this body of work focusing on hitting with microphones has evolved it has been interesting to try to figure out what makes it listenable as a repeated recording because the live sound by itself is quite crude, it sounds like a chaotic mess.
Recorded by Christof Migone, featuring live mixing by Fleshtone Aura
ER: Since this is a blog that focuses on the ethnographic, do you ascribe any ethnographic quality or method to this performance?
CM: It depends what you mean as ethnographic. I have loosely framed the piece as a portrait of a city, in that sense I think it has a pseudo ethnographic intent. What I have found with this piece in the places it has been performed especially the outdoor ones is that people have commented on the effect of hearing the performance well before they see it. Especially if they don’t know it is happening. That brings an interesting aspect to it of asking listeners to decipher the sonic content at the same time as they attempt to locate it. Microphones hitting the concrete is a very raw sounding of the city. When I was first asked to do it, I framed it as an instantiation of the Situationist slogan ‘underneath the pavement, the beach’ (sous les pavés, la plage), the slogan articulating an utopian quest or yearning. I still appreciate this aspect of the piece where it functions as a political protest but taking a paradoxical form of presentation. One usually assumes you need to stand up en masse and march down the street to effectively protest (though Occupy signaled a shift in tactics—that being said it certainly was not the first instance of a sit-in). And usually lying down means either you’re sleeping or at least passive. In this case you’re making noise, and there is a certain violence to it. I like that position of adopting a submissive position, yet the hope of changing the world has not faded—obviously this is a very idealistic and simplistic way of formulating it. I suppose it can be viewed as a stupid piece. Stupid in the sense that it is protesting without letting you know what it is protesting for. It’s just an action, nothing more. A prelude to something. In some ways it is a visceral reaction or resistance to something—anything, everything.
Recorded by Christof Migone, featuring live mixing by Steve Bates
ER: Having never seen it [before Nuit Blanche] I think of the piece and its relation to space, place and bodies, in which case it is very much ethnographic.
CM: Christine, the curator, yesterday was telling me that she said the piece—which takes place in truck trailers—echoed for her the recent horrendous findings in Europe of refugees trapped and perishing in trucks. That would be an instance where I would resist a direct correlation, and I wouldn’t make a piece about that, but I am curious if anyone else would think of that. Having that potential reading of the piece in the context of the spectacle that is Nuit Blanche enriches both the piece and the event.
CIE thanks Christof Migone for making time for this interview and Ely Rosenblum for conducting and transcribing the interview.