Interview mit Francisco Lopez

Das Gespräch mit Francisco Lopez fand am 15. März 2008 in Berlin im Rahmen des Festivals MaerzMusik statt, und zwar am Haus der Berliner Festspiele.

Interview: Björn Gottstein. Abschrift: Martina Seeber.

Is the microphone an instrument?

The microphone for me and for all those people in general who work with phonography, with field recordings, the microphone is the interface with reality. There is no objective interface with reality and what happens with that is simply, the consequence of that is that through the microphone we get a certain apprehension of reality, certain fragment or instruction from reality. And then to me and to many other people the thing that you can get from reality through the microphone is, it can be a different kind of reality. Not so much a representation of reality, but some people call it material, sound material. That is one aspect of it. You have some material, yes, but at the same time you are accessing through the recording that you get, through the microphone and the recording device accessing a world that can be conceived as a world made of sound. And that is a totally different story than making a documentary or making a representation of reality. So I think the microphone and the recording devices are a technological way of realizing that we can not in fact access reality. The same thing happens with the photo camera. And also at the same time any recording device contains at the same time the possibility of representation, which is what most people do and this other possibility of working with that substance from reality. In the case of music, in the case of sound the person who most reflected about this was Pierre Schaeffer, not so much because of his music, but because of his writings and his thinking about this. About a phenomenology of sound. Which is what he did. So the microphone is in the middle of all of this, although for most people this is not known or not a concern, you know. Most people want to record something with the microphone that resembles reality.

So when you record do you look for a special focus, do you align the microphone in a certain way?


Do you check the recordings with the headphones, and do you wait until you are happy with what you are recording? It is not so much documentary in that way. It is searching and pinpointing a certain sound and certain point.

I think for most people doing phonography it is more of a personal exploration of that, of the little bit of reality we can access. Of course some people are doing sound recordings because of documentary purposes, but besides that most people that don't have that specific purpose, what they do is, they select according to their personal taste. In that sense I do the same. What I do is, when I am in an environment I want to record, first thing is, when you stop and decide to record, it is because something that is attracting to you for whatever reason. and then what I think is crucial is not so much the space where you are, the place where you are, but at a very small scale where exactly you place the microphone. When you are in an environment, in a place, depending on exactly where you place the microphone and you leave the place, it is crucial to obtain different properties of the sound. For the point of view of your representation it will be very similar, but from the point view of the texture of the sound and lets say the details of the sound, in most cases it can make a big difference if you move the microphone just a few meters of even less than that. So from that point of view even if you focusing on that aspect of reality it is crucial exactly where you place the microphone. And the way I work which is not common for a lot of people who are doing this kind of work is that I look for a spot that looks convincing for whatever reasons, personal choice or whatever. And I check with the headphones a little bit but then I leave the equipment and I move away. I am never in the place where the recording is taking place. And one important reason for that is first obviously a technical thing, which is not to make noises which interfere with the recordings, which I don't want to do. It is something you can do, but ... Second in the case of nature and wilderness areas, if you are around the equipment it is obvious that lots of animals won't do anything. They will shut up. And that is a striking difference between being there and not being there. So this is a good reason for moving away if you want to capture certain things that won't happen otherwise. And another advantage for me is that when I listen to the recordings I always discover things I could not hear before, because I was not there. And there is always something happening just because you are not there. So listening to the recordings afterwards, and normally I leave long time between the recording and the actual listening, sometimes months or even years, when I listen back to the recordings I have enough distance in time and in memory to be able to focus more on the sounds than on my own memory of the place. For me it really helps to do it that way.

In your first answer you mentioned two points that sounded interesting. The first is the relationship to photography. Photography and painting have coexisted for a hundred years and even longer, 150 years. They have actually come to terms with what they are about. And then you mentioned Pierre Schaeffer in trying to scrabble up a theory of what the theory of what a objet sonore is and what musique concrete is. First of all I would think that music, the theory is not as profound as it is in the photography-painting dualism as with composed music an field recordings. And at the same time, since you mentioned Pierre Schaeffer, you must be aware of the fact that he would not be very happy with the music you are making.

No, because my interest in Pierre Schaeffer is not aesthetic, not about the music. It is about the philosophy, the phenomenology of sound, the attempt of making that, which I find it very exceptional in the history of music and sound. And to me it is important. It is a big difference, a huge change in the conception of sound and particularly in the conception of recordings, to conceive that a recording is an entity by itself and no representation. Photography did that much longer before recorded sound. And almost from the beginning in the history of photography, photography soon became considered to be something beyond representation, beyond portraits for example. And very soon that happened for photography. It didn't happen that way for sound. And still today it is common for the average to consider a photography in an exhibition for example as a piece of art or something like that. Something that goes beyond just representing a place or person, while the same for sound it has not been socially obtained. For some people, but it is a minority of people that had that kind of vision on recorded sound while it is not the case for the average person. This I think has to do with you know with the common understanding of visual creations in general. not only for photography but also for painting, and the acceptance of abstraction in visual terms compared to sound. I think sound in general is much behind what visual arts are in terms of social acceptance and in terms of the general understanding of what it is to record sound for example. So it has to do with the social history of the use of this media. To me that is clear. With regards to music: What happens with music based on recordings, on real things, that is a very short history compared to the whole history of music. There has been historically a much shorter period of time where these questions have been you know discussed. And also there is one more thing that goes against the conception of sound recording as something non representational, that in the case of music, classical or popular music and rock culture, sound recording has been used specifically as a representation, when a pop band for example they do a recording they produce a record and that is the most intense form of representation you can imagine. and this is so much present in the history of music, that actually the people you have to struggle the most with when it comes to discuss this thing, about what it is a sound recording, is actually people involved in music, because of this. And that makes it harder just to explain this. And I am not saying that is better or worse. What I am saying is the same thing Pierre Schaeffer was saying, it is not that you necessarily are creating a different kind of music is that it goes much beyond that. It is basically that you open up to a different conception of what somthing recorded is, actually.

When you make a piece, as far as I understand, you don't touch the sound or you are trying not to touch the sound.

Oh, I do touch the sound. I transform.

OK, harshly?

I go from no transformation to absolute the most radical transformation of sound through a long process of processing, then transformation in generations. For example you take a sound, this is a very common practice, you take a sound that you transform somehow, and that transformation you transform again and again and again. And that process to me it is closer, metaphorically, to evolution, biological evolution, because basically what you are doing is several generations of transformations. Mutation of the material. But it is also similar to evolution in the sense that in the process of transformation you get many points where you have branching, like diversification of the sounds. So from one sound you can obtain many other sounds in one generation and one of them can be transformed in many other sounds in the second generation. I think this is a good metaphor. And this has nothing to do with the concept of remix which is often used in electronic music, borrowed from popular music of course. So I do in some pieces from no transformation at all, just the straight field recordings. They are already transformed, no matter what we do, because the microphone is the first transformer of reality, but within that context from no transformation to complete transformation of sound.

What are your criteria for making a piece? I mean, you must be listening to the recordings for long on the computer, you chose certain points which will be like a climax, or certain action is going on at certain points. Do you have an overall plan for a form? Do you know when a piece is going to end? Do you know what is going to be the first sound?

What I do is, I follow the sounds themselves. I follow, what they tell me. What they show me. So my work never has an overall plan before starting. I don't have any structure in mind and even I don't have a certain path on how to proceed with the composition work. So what I do is I start with a bunch of different materials that I have and I start working with them. Some I don't transform if I think they are good the way they are for whatever purposes or the initial vision or image you have after listening to the recordings. And some others I start transforming. That starts generating this whole population of sounds. All these different things, this palette of textures and things. And when those things start appearing they give me directions, they suggest things and then I follow those things, and then I follow those directions, I start assembling things, then I find new ways of keep going. And then the piece grows that way. It grows sort of by itself. To me that way of working that specifically focuses on the nature of the sounds, of the matter itself and not so much on a plan that I have, conceptual, structural or any other kind that I can have separated from the matter itself. For me it is a very good way of working for several reasons. One, because I can sort of bypass personal preferences I may have and I follow whatever happened. And since the material is field recordings I haven't been creating those things originally. And then that is sort of detached from me in a way and I can follow things that I would not have thought of making myself. And another advantage is, every time I do this process there are always amazing surprises along the way, things you don't expect before hand, things you can't even imagine. And this is one of the most beautiful aspect in composing that way as opposed to lets say playing guitar. With a guitar you can do thousands of different things, but in the end it will always be a guitar. This is not better or worse. But with this way of working, of processing and transforming there will be new guitars that will appear on the way. Strange guitars, lets put it that way. And this is a fascinating process because I never know what is going to happen. But I have not composed a single piece in which that kind of interesting surprise has not happened. It always happens, and this to me is like the most amazing thing.

Have there been dead ends also?

Sometimes. but the thing is, it is an interesting question, my feeling is that I found myself sometimes on dead ends, but then very soon the sounds will tell me, OK, listen to this and then ... (lacht) So it is like having company, having all those sounds is like having company because they tell you what to do.

It is interesting, because when I am listening to your pieces, I have the feeling of a very organic form in a way and the way you describe how you work, helps explain.

Yes, at the end they turn out to be that way. Because if you say you work with nature recordings for example you can always make this parallel listen between nature and organic sound. But I have the feeling that the same happens to me with machine sounds for example. When I work with sounds from machines and stuff like that, and I think you can also say this result, that comes not from nature, but from inorganic things, from artificial things, in the end it has this organic in the sense of imperfect and irregular and all those features, you know. And why is that the case? I guess, it is because you follow those irregularities that come from the machines. There are no perfect machines in the sense of being so precise, rhythmical and regular as the machines that have been created to make music. So if you work with machines that haven't been conceived to make music, you have all those things. They are really interesting because they don't resemble typical music. (lacht)

Is it a big difference for you working with machine sounds or sounds of the civilized world and working with nature?

17:03 Of course there is a difference. I treat all the sounds with the same respect, let's put it that way. I have a similar good relationship with all of them in that sense. And I found on the way in my experience so far a similar kind of inspiration from both kinds. Maybe a difference in nature is the dynamics, that you have less control on dynamics, typical if you are working with machines, you have a specific range of dynamics for each machine or each environment, whereas in nature sometimes you know less what is going to happen. The dynamics are very strong as well, very loud things as well in nature. You have less control of that, also the pace of things in nature is completely different, of course. So yes, there are differences, but when it comes to work, the actual work, there is no essential difference and also because I have been combining many times in pieces nature and artificial world.

One CD I want to mention specifically is Buildings, and to me it became an iconography of the modern office building or building in a big city. And it kind of depicted the complex soundwise almost perfectly, it summed it up. And so for this album it seems that you had a very clear focus of what you wanted to depict. And you have other CDs with a much more open concept and pieces that even have no title or are called „untitled“. Is there a difference in working on pieces like that?

Not in the pieces themselves. In those cases like Buildings, La Selva or the new one with wind from Patagonia there is – I would not say a theme – but a very clear revelation of the material and there is a concentration on one specific kind of material, in the case of Buildings from those buildings in New York. In that case I am restricting myself to that material and I am telling what it is. So the most immediate reaction to listening to that is that it is a representation. And what I pose at a challenge in those CDs and that trilogy of CDs, in all of them there is no transformation of the sound and it is clear where it comes from and there is also an explanation, liner notes and photographs. I am posing a challenge that I normally have myself, when I am the person who has been doing the recordings. So you can listen to this as a representation, but let's try to listen besides that to these other things, you know how they are in a different way. I think when you have a sound and you transform the sound and you cannot recognize what it is, it is much easier to go into the sound itself, to listen to what you are listening without knowing, but this you can do as well with any recording. It is much more difficult, but it is a very interesting thing when you do, not as a rational, conceptional exercise but as an exercise of spirit. Spirit in the sense of trying to access, trying to confront the way you access reality, the way we access reality. This is an exercise you can even do without a recording. You can be anywhere and do the exercise of trying to access the phenomenology of reality. And it is an amazing exercise because it is so difficult. Because we humans we don't perceive reality as it is, because basically we work with models of reality. But machines are not like that. And that is a very interesting thing about machines. So recording or taking a video or a photograph is a very interesting thing to do from the point of view of trying to see that, to compare apprehension of reality with those kinds of machines. So in those pieces like Buildings I think that is there: i talked about it explicitly in the liner notes and I think it is interesting to listen to those pieces that way. you know? This is the way I mostly understand what is the interest of working with those pieces for me.

And the untitled pieces are much more open in that way?

They are easier in that sense. Because if you don't know what it is from the very beginning, and if it is what people say abstract sounds, it is not what they typically call abstract sound, but meaning that you don't recognize what it is, then it is easier. Because from the start you are kind of thrown into that thing that is made just with sound. And then you have to deal with it. (lacht)

In the visual arts not giving a title to a piece is so easy, in music it seems to be a big problem.

Because there is a strong tradition of doing that. There has been moments in the history of music obviously in the 19th century where it was a common practice not to give titles to pieces. In absolute music during the romanticism mostly it was a very intense affirmation on the character of music as an independent entity independent from opera at the time. And it was a very strong affirmation to say, well this is opus number whatever. So there has been times. But both for traditional and popular music in the past and also in the 20th century it is the most common thing to relate music to other things, of course, you know, and particular for popular music for example to have a message, to have lyrics, words, expression, communication. All these things are very very strong features of music. And most people actually seek those things in music. They seek company, communication, message, sharing those things with other people, understanding and that is fantastic. But there are other things you can do with sound and music and I am not interested in communication personally with music. And because I think, this is a very personal thing, the power of sound and the power of music, the strongest thing you can have in music and the strongest thing you have in sound are not related to communication, are not related to using them to give a specific message, to be a companion, to order things. and I think that strength is dissipated a little bit, lost, when you use sound or music to accompany something that goes besides the main thing. I mean this is a very purist version, because you are trying to go to the purist essence of that. Well, yes I am. But it is not a conceptual way of approaching music, it is a very intuitive, passionate way of approaching that activity. I am not against other kinds of music or other uses of music to other things for sure.

I am not sure, I understand. You are not communicating, there is not a message to come across by music. But what does come across is something the sound does by itself, just kind of presenting the sound and the listener is alone with the sound, and it is not you any more?

Basically there is a sender and a receiver. If you talk about the classical theory of communication, there is a sender in the sense that you have recorded something and you send it somehow. There is a receiver, a person, who is listening. But where is the message, there is no message. And what is the purpose of that interaction. This is what is interesting to me. The purpose should be open to the listener. I think music is not finished when you record something. Or when you compose something. Music is not the process of the composition, is not completed. It is completed when somebody is listening to it in a powerful, in an intense way. Not when music is thrown through a loudspeaker. When nobody is listening, obviously there is no music there. So from that point of view I think, if we put it in those terms, the message is created by the listener, and then, that is not a exactly communication, it is a form of sending something and then being able to – like every person being able to construct an idea of what it is, and not only what it is in terms of meaning, but what you can do with that. For example, for one person it can be something that is very sad or reminds this person of his childhood or something like that. In that sense for different people it will create different things. This potential is present in all kinds of music. But the only thing is that you can enhance this potential or you can kind of lessen this potential. And what I do is enhance as much as possible. And for example, in the experience of the live performances I have feedback from audiences in different chairs where different people in the same performance have radically different experiences. And the things they will imagine are radically different, even opposite. This I find particularly interesting because you see that things are open. You don't have complete control on what you are doing. I don't have control of the aesthetic that I am creating. So I am not creating an aesthetic.

So you would not be determined to tell the listener to use a certain kind of loudspeaker..


He can listen to your music in any which way. On an MP3 player ...

This is also an interesting area of discussion. What happens in the end, what you realize is the impossibility of a concrete aspect of sound. like the idea of concrete music, of concrete sound, it is impossible. It is an ideal. Because by recording something, you have created an absolute fixed object. It is fixed in the codification in the recording. digital or analog or whatever. But then you need to hear that. In order to hear that you have the speakers and you have the space also, and you have different kind of headphones or whatever. There is always an aesthetic in what you do, no matter what kind of work you do. I am not pure in the sense of not having my aesthetic. But when you see that a lot of different people will have completely different reactions to the same thing, I think it is a fantastic thing. I haven't been controlling that, I haven't been directing that. I see too much direction in that sense. That is a personal opinion. Directing, leading in the aesthetics of many different kinds of music. And that for some respects it is good, for other things it is not, because then you have to be culturally part of that circle or what. I love the idea that I am trying to do music for all publics you know. For all ages and all publics. And I am very happy, if you have like old people there, or young people who have no experience or interest in experimental or contemporary music. And I always try to do that because in my experience those people, they have very good reactions, they have a very good experience. They have an intense, strange, but enlightening somhow experience. And that is what to me is the best thing I can imagine. I don't like to make music for very specialized people.

You say, you don't want your music to be political in that sense, nonetheless your music is very open to political interpretation. To the idea of sound ecology etc. I don't know if you are against the idea of sound ecology, I would think not. But it is not that important?

If you do a piece with nature recordings you can always do that. And I support the protection of the environment; I am a biologist also. But most of my pieces are not that kind of piece. And even working with natural sounds you can do a million of different things. So what I don't share with the sound ecology movement is the idea, that sound is a representation basically. That is not interesting to me, to be used politically that way. Because if you try to do a representation of a natural forest, a tropical rain forest for example, you try to do the representation through the recordings and that representation is so poor compared to the real experience. And this is obvious, but it does not seem to be so obvious when there are companies, that are dedicated that to – this is not because it is business, I have nothing against business –, but the main thing is what they sell is, that they have good representations of reality. They have binaural recordings, they have this and they have that. They can play the CD and then you can lay back and relax in your living room and then you have this immersive experience into the jungle. And obviously the experience of the jungle you cannot have it on a sofa, you know? So it is so different. It is a very peculiar sort of fantasy. Not a good representation of reality. Ok sound ecology is not only about this. This is not a description of sound ecology. But in general the political agenda of sound ecology is to make the public sensitive to ecological problems of today. This is a good intention. I have nothing against that intention, but I think the work with sound has much more interesting areas of exploration. That is one thing and the other thing is that I – and this is a personal opinion – I find very boring a lot of works that result when the purpose of the work is to create such a representation. The representation is created sometimes through the recordings of the environments and some of the time through the opinion of people, through interviews, people talking about a certain place, or typically about something that has been lost. A sound is lost because something that produced the sound is lost. It can be a natural thing or a machine, a train or something. and to me this is not interesting to listen to. I can see a documentary, but it is a documentary in combination with pseudo scientific things that in the end turns out to be very – in my opinion – a very week thing that doesn't really obtain any of those purposes. I think you can create a much more, much stronger impact on people about the environment by creating something that is very rich by itself. Not by giving opinions of people mixed with the ... It is not a documentary, it is not a sound piece, it is something in between that is really mild, weak and not well done. This is my personal opinion. I don't share that. There are some people working in the field of sound recording whom I like their work. Like Barry Truax for example, but to me they are exceptional. Now political. What I said before is very political. When I said that I make music for all publics, this is very political, you know. And I think we need more, I think the history of contemporary music and electronic music, the traditional electronic music is a history of being isolated from society, until very recently. And I think it is important to change this. I think this practise of music is this way of working with sound and creating things can be interesting for a lot of people. We should try not to make it popular maybe, but make it more accessible, especially from the point of view of experience, not so much in conceptional terms. Most people won't be interested in that aspect. But I think you can create very interesting, novel and new experiences for anybody. And this is very political.

Is there a place you have never recorded and you would very much like to record?

Yes, of course. The world is big enough. If you travel enough there will be always new places. But particularly the region of South-East Asia is a region which I have explored very little. I did Japan, china, but not like tropical forests in South-East Asia. I would like to go and check out. Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, New Guinea, those places. I have a plan for New Guinea next year, maybe. I am very interested in rain forests. And then there will be many different intense machinery environments I would like to check out. Typically those are also very difficult to access, you know. Specially after September 11th, there are many restrictions in many different countries to access big facilities and many of those places are interesting from a point of view of some recordings.

You think no rain forest sounds alike? I have had this discussion with people doing portraits of cities. Can you tell really tell the difference. There is Venice ...

You can look for the difference, you can always look specifically for the things that will make those cities different. What they typically do when they do sound portraits, they have to include in the sound portrait something that is prototypical. So they will go to the famous bell tower or whatever, you know. But then same thing with photography. You can go to any city in the world and take millions of photographs where nobody can tell where it is. So I think every place contains differences and things are completely the same. And there is also the process of homogenisation of cities because of common shared machines, like traffic. Traffic is not the same all over the world, but you there are some things you can find everywhere. And then traffic, cell phones sound exactly the same. So there is also that process of homogenization. It is true. But it is sort of strange to do a sound portrait of a city, because what is the city? There are so many things to think about. At the end you become more humble and say ok: I am going to do a project in a city. I do not pretend that I grasp all what the city contains, historically, visually, socially, whatever. The only thing I and everyone can do is to say: this is my experience of that city at that time and where I could go. This I have done it several times. And I have done it with collectives of people, with artists who live in the city. I did it in Montreal, in Brussels and in other cities. And collectively with other people we work with a humble approach, we say, ok lets see what we can do. We take a bunch of recordings from the city and we want to do something interesting out of it collectively with the knowledge and the taste we have, but it is always. I think you can do a million different sound portraits of the same city. With different people at different times. I wouldn't say this is the sound portrait of this city in this year. It is much more interesting to say, this is the spirit or the mind of this person in relation to this place, to this space in this point in time and that becomes a much more interesting approach.