Breaking the Sound Barrier: An Interview with Nancy Tobin

0 Posted by - March 11, 2009 - Conversations, Features, Performance, Sound

nancytobinouverture1Early this month I had the privilege of interviewing Nancy Tobin, an established sound artist and sound designer in Montréal.

During the last twenty years, her designs for dance and theatre productions have been part of the Festival de théâtre Transamériques, the World Stage Festival, the Festival d’Avignon, the Edinburgh International Festival and the Berliner Festwochen. Over the years, she has developed a specialization in vocal amplification for theatre and incorporates unusual audio speakers to transform the aural qualities of her compositions. Nancy Tobin is currently finishing DelayToys-Berceuses, a thematic composition, centered on memory, play, silence and contemplation.**

[Art Threat] As a kid, you were drawn to radios and musical instruments. Tell me about that. Did you feel you had a special connection to sounds waves?

[Nancy Tobin] No. I never felt a special connection, at least not consciously, but recently I have come to realize that knowledge is not always a conscious act… we understand a lot through the body and so it’s at that level that my relationship to sound begins and from where true artistic creation stems.

You straddle two worlds: you are a sound designer for theatre and contemporary dance and a sound artist. You’ve released CDs and you perform, too. Is it difficult to combine these two practices? How are these two practices different?

In theatre, I am called upon when there is no need for music. I’m often told that I’m good for these types of projects because the show requires only sounds, noises. They ask me not to illustrate with sounds, but rather to compose ambient soundscapes that evoke emotion and stimulate a feeling…

In the realm of sound art, I am often described and presented as a sound designer for theatre. I am, in this way, a strange artist, an artist who makes “guest appearances” at experimental sound art concerts…

This kind of situation, where I’m always considered an outsider, this identity, as the one who trespasses, pleases me. It gives me, I think, freedom to be many things simultaneously, and to change, and to cross boundaries, to be in movement, transformative, nomadic.

My career as a sound designer has meant that I’ve become adept at sound reinforcement and  design techniques. My practice as a sound artist has been one of constant discovery. I am always finding new ways of composing, of generating sound.

I think that this nomadic state, this fluid identity, where it is never clear where I am coming from or going… I think that I belong in that liminal space naturally. As with language, this ambiguity remains. I have a “pure laine” Québécois mother from Le Bas du Fleuve and an Jewish Anglophone father from rue St Dominique in Montréal. I learned these two languages simultaneously, I confused them as a child. And still today, for Anglos, I am Franco, and for Francos, I am a little bit Anglo… I am always a little bit outside, no matter where I find myself situated culturally…

Yon mentioned once that you wanted to open sound art to the public at large, to make it accessible. What kinds of projects do you have in mind to demystify sound art?

In 1960, John Cage was invited to a popular television show to perform “water walk”. It is immediately evident that the spectators do not take this art form or performance seriously. In fact, I find Cage’s reactions to be quite inspiring… I think that the situation would be no different if say, Cage was to appear on the David Letterman Show. Sound art and experimental music remain obscure. It is still reserved for the few, the cognoscenti. Regardless of why experimental sound remains obscure, I truly believe  that it is possible to open it up, to change this perception. I dream of organizing projects outside the usual art circuits to reach a broader public. Like investing in a local bar, in a neighbourhood like mine, in St Henri, for example. I’d like to organize concerts…

You prefer to stay off the computer to create. What do you use?

I am always disappointed with the computer when I use it during a performance. I have not found a way to use it that allows flexibility, subtlety. These are the things that stimulate me during a performance: the unpredictability and open possibilities. I like to create a context, a playground for developing new sound possibilities… like bringing together guitar pedals and frequency generators for example. When I rehearse, I take a loose tally of what the possibilities are, what rhythms can be generated, which combinations are interesting, what kinds of textures are induced? I try not to rehearse too much… its really not about getting comfortable or mastering the instruments but rather to see what the instruments afford. During a performance, with others or alone, I never know what is going to happen. All I know is that it’s important to be open and available to the moment: entirely free to better act and hear. The extreme pleasure is in this risk, this ‘danger’, shared with the public.

Your website is very minimalist. How important is an online presence for artists these days? What do you think of sites like LastFM and applications like iTunes that allow for the mass distribution of your work… with the possibility of making you popular… and rich.

This is something I have been thinking about a lot lately. The internet—how should I use it? In the last ten years, the internet has certainly changed the possibilities for promotion and dissemination for artists. LastFM and MySpace and Facebook have made everything more accessible. I addressed some of these concerns recently at a talk at GIV—it was the tenth anniversary of RestArea* —and I asked, “if I’m not on the web, do I exist?” I asked myself this question while I was preparing for a class I was recently teaching at UQAM. I wanted to compile a list of audio/sound artists and in doing web-based research I saw myself discriminate against those artists for which there was no information online.

And so I wonder, to be an artist, what kinds of commitment to archiving our work online must we have?

I Googled you and noticed  that URL is not yours, and that in fact, there are many “nancy tobin”s who are artists!

It’s funny, no? My blurry identity continues on the internet. Not only are my cultural and practical identities difficult to define, but on the net you can even not know which one of “me” we’re talking about! Again, I like this confusion. In any way, we have to concede to the fact that it is impossible to control one’s image on the internet… so why try or worry?

If you could do anything at all, and had no worries of money or time, what would you do?

Absolutely nothing, and then I would do everything, everything that is truly important.

“The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all. This puts one in accord with nature, in her manner of operation.” John Cage

John Cage Water Walk

*ReatArea: Web project created for the event  Laboratoire Périphérique at GIV, curator: Nicole Gingras.

**Pour lire la version originale en français ou pour écouter un extrait audio, cliquez ici.

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