TEN QUESTIONS WITH: AUTISTICI
In his role as label manager, David Newman oversees the production of an ongoing stream of Audiobulb releases but he also issues his own music under the Autistici name. Following upon the release of his debut full-length Volume Objects on Taylor Deupree's 12k label (a fitting home for Autistici's nuanced blend of acoustic instruments, environmental recordings, and synthesizers), Newman discussed in detail his working methods, influences, and plans, and shared his thoughts on contemporary electronics.
Please tell us a little bit about your background.
I am a sound designer / composer based in the UK. My motivation to write music and design sound comes from an innate internal drive to order and reorder sound and silence. It is a process through which I can empty my head of the maximal overload presented by this world. Writing also provides an opportunity to focus and obsess on some of the tiny subtle sounds that I find so fascinating and enjoy perceiving. Looking back at my childhood, I remember being fascinated with records, tapes, and the radio. I recall experimenting with sound by running my thumb slowly under the record player needle to hear the sound of my fingerprint being amplified. I remember dismantling tape recorders and adjusting the tape head to alter the playback. I have always been fascinated by sound—listening to music, learning the piano, and recording the birds in the garden. My first recordings took place when I was twelve years old before I had encountered four-track recorders. I would spend hours playing recorded sounds through the home hi-fi whilst mic'ing up an instrument to record a new layer of sound on to tape. At that age, I had no reference to musicians working with abstract sound; all I knew was that I found the process and outcome compelling.
What's the origin of the name “Autistici”?
The name autistici acknowledges the part of me that has an obsessive preoccupation with sound. I have met many people who have been labeled as having autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). The term disorder reflects a sense of difference from the norm. It is clear that many people with ASD struggle to communicate, interact, and make sense of social situations. For these reasons they may experience distress or anxiety. I acknowledge this struggle but also I appreciate the skills, strengths, and abilities that people with ASD have. Theirs is a unique life view that should be valued. It is a life view that challenges us to stop, re-evaluate, and come to terms with the fact that people can experience the same world very differently.
ASD is a continuum. Therefore we all experience difficulties that place us somewhere on the continuum. We all have difficulties in communicating our inner experiences, our emotions, or needs. Akin to someone who has ASD, I have my own disorders including a hypersensitivity to noise and an intense special interest in the interplay between sound and silence. For me there is also a cathartic element to my work, a sense that something difficult has been worked through via the process and narrative of a composition. Perhaps the name autistici embodies my own “disorder” and the channel I have developed for its expression.
How would you describe the new album Volume Objects (12k) and how does it fit in with the rest of your work?
I have relished the opportunity to work with 12k and have a great respect for the label and appreciate their aesthetic. Volume Objects is the result of a period of intense immersion in the material. Each track represents a honed narrative developed through the placement of sound, silence, and dynamic interaction. Each of the Volume Objects tracks started with me obsessing on an audio element of interest, weighing up its form, function, and impact on my psyche. The next stage involved developing and sculpting the sound, and introducing elements that recontextualised the material in a manner that gave me a sense of narrative. I am interested in the manner in which material is conceived, gestated, and developed as well as the manner in which it disintegrates and decomposes. Ultimately there is an existential narrative at work as each volume object is created, decomposed, and finally destroyed by the silence of its ending.
How much of your work is done on the computer?
Much of my work is done on a computer. It's a place where I organize, archive, develop, arrange, and transform sounds. Outside of the computer I am recording material such as field recordings, musical instruments, voices, and manipulated household objects onto mini-disk via microphone. These are transferred into the digital realm, worked on in a sound editor, and arranged in a sequencer. The computer is a wonderful tool. It enables someone like me to focus in on a tiny element of audio, to accentuate it, amplify it, and change it through pitch, time, effects, compression dynamics, and stereo field. Once you have mastered how to manipulate sound through these tools, there is no sound or near silence that is beyond creation.
The work in the computer environment is, in my view, just the beginning of the process. Beyond the production and output of sound, there is the role of the listener. I have always been fascinated by the role of human perception. I am aware that different people will make sense of the same experience in different ways. Furthermore, the same person may make sense of the same material presented at different times in different ways. In my view it is the listener who occupies the position of the final “active element” in a track. The psychological sense he/she makes of the music, what is filtered in or out, the external environment in which he/she listens all contribute to the perception of the material. It is people beyond computers who determine what is “heard.”
Can you remember when and how you discovered electronic music?
I am a child of the 1970s. The theme to Dr Who by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop would be my earliest memory. At the same time I remember being drawn to the electronic elements within works by Miles Davis as well as the moog synthesizer used by the Beatles.
You have released material on different netlabels in the past. What do you think about the netlabel world and, generally, what is your thought regarding the increasing de-materialization of music from vinyl to digital formats?
The netlabel scene is great platform for many artists to be heard. There comes a time when a piece of work is finished that the artist is faced with the choice of sharing the music, archiving, or deleting it. Netlabels are instrumental in supporting artists who want to communicate their work and have it heard by others. I have a lot of respect for the curators of netlabels. Their strength lies in their ability to operate away from the traditional business model (i.e., investment, creating stock, selling stock and accumulating profit). The netlabel model enables a community based upon “love not money.” The audience is enabled to access new music without the constraints of a direct financial commitment. This allows releases to be heard by many people from all over the world. The weaknesses of the netlabel model include issues of growing quantity and lessoning of average quality. Many sites become poorly maintained and the gate-keeping role (i.e., the A&R function) can become less stringent. The result is a swamping of the Internet with material that is of little interest to more then a select few people. It is my view that all labels (and especially netlabels) are faced with the challenge of maintaining a brand identity that its audience can trust.
As for the de-materialization of music from vinyl to digital formats, I have no problem in giving people access to choices. However, I am concerned about the “dumbing down” of audio quality with the aim of ensuring music fits neatly and quickly onto mp3 players. Most quality music is designed to take full advantage of the dynamic potential of the human ear and brain. MP3 compression degrades audio quality to a point where it interrupts my enjoyment of the piece. CDs and to a greater degree vinyl have the capability of fully capturing the dynamic soundstage that the artist has created. I also prefer the tactile object of the CD or vinyl packaging in my hand. I understand that some people will want to treat music as a disposable commodity. However, for me, music is something that I enjoy to collect, cherish, and re-experience in a high-quality format. I look forward to the day when 32-bit formats become available and where the equipment is widely available to fully exploit the psychoacoustic experience.
Is there anyone you would like to work with and haven't yet had the chance to?
I prefer to work alone. There is a stream of consciousness element to my work, an immersion in the material which would be hard to replicate with someone else in the immediate physical environment. However, I really enjoy working with other artist's material to produce either new tracks or remixes. So, in that respect, I would not rule out working with others. I think any artist that can share a compelling sound source would find a willing collaborator in me. I would enjoy working with material from Bernhard Günter, Susumu Yokota, Stars of the Lid, Múm, Sigur Rós, Björk, and Kate Bush. There is no need to be genre-specific, as I'm confident that given the sound sources I would create my own new narrative of the work. For example, with Björk and Kate Bush, I could focus on their breathing, the sounds they make between the words, the inhaling and exhaling of air. I would be interested to explore whether the sounds of these two remarkable vocalists would complement or juxtapose in an interesting manner across the same track or different tracks.
I would assume that playing live involves a completely different process to working in the studio. Which environment do you prefer?
Playing live is a very exposing experience. There is a sense of anxious vulnerability attached to the experience that I find exhilarating. For me, playing live is a chance to connect and interact with an audience and to share my work. I tend to play with a visual backdrop such as VJ performance so that the audience has the opportunity to be visually stimulated. However, I will also perform outside of the computer to provide a further live audio element. For example, during my last live set I played a STEIM cracklebox, a Wyandotte Musical Box, and a typewriter. These external objects were played alongside computer audio tracks.
I like to use the live setting to experiment with my archive of sounds and bring new elements into tracks that were not present in the “recorded version.” To achieve this, I break each musical piece into its component tracks. I do a live manipulation of the component tracks, mixing tracks from different pieces together, and adding effects according to the flow of the gig. I try to understand the mood of the room. If I feel the set is inducing a sleepy atmosphere, I may decide to build up to something dense or harsh. Alternatively, I may promote the sleep and let the sounds diminish to a gentle trickle, perhaps introducing the sound of a snoring person or a sleeping cat. Of course, in a live context, the audience is part of the set. Their noises, their talking, their drinking glasses become part of the audio “field.” Sometimes I like to fade in a mic input that is recording the audience. By increasing the volume to the point where the output from the PA is amplifying the audience, a meta-performance with feedback from the field takes place and the boundary between performer and audience is blurred.
Electronic music has evolved considerably since late eighties-early nineties. What would you say is the way it has changed the most?
The main transition in my opinion is a move from heavily-quantized computer arrangements to more organic and fluid outputs. We have moved from precise early techno and house to a state where ambience, microsound, glitch, IDM, and live acoustic performances can all be brought together within one track, allowing for a more fluid and diverse sound. Different genres from around the world have been assimilated more quickly than ever before due to the communicative force of the Internet. This enables artists to have greater awareness and draw on a wide range of styles. The challenge becomes one of choice; there is a need to make artistic decisions to draw boundaries and work within manageable constraints. Ultimately, no track can be completed without a focus on its end point. As we move away from predictable and linear compositions (i.e., intro, verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus x 4 to fade), we are faced with managing complexity and making non-formulaic decisions about a piece's final form.
What are your current recording plans?
I am writing material for my next full release and am also engaged in a collaboration with Claudia and Disastrato who release material on Audiobulb Records. We are looking at creating a long, multi-faceted piece containing details from each of our home environments. Perhaps Björk, Kate Bush, or some other person with a compelling sound source will contact me and I will find myself working with the sound and silence they bring.
photos: Emily Newman
This interview originally appeared in Blow-Up.