Noé Cuéllar and Joseph Kramer in conversation with Lise McKean

Coppice performing Pictures and Sounds, University of Chicago Film Studies Center, 2014. Photo by Julia Dratel

Coppice is interactions between the capture and generation of sound and music from custom designed and prepared instruments and devices. It draws from its glossary of study in bellows and electronics, and in digitally-seeded air from physical modeling and modular synthesis to form compositions for performance, recording, and moving image. Presentations include live performance for stage and installation settings, sound sculpture and objects, photography, video, and software.

Coppice was new when I met Noé Cuellar in December 2009. Since then, he and I have talked often and I’m a regular at Coppice performances. Joseph and Noé are artists’ artists. They’re inventive and insightful about their métier—and more. I’m grateful that they’ve agreed to continue our conversations as I research and write a book that explores visual thinking and objects in the work of sound artists.

Lise: Let’s get started by talking about visual thinking, the role of the visual in your work, and recent shifts to give more prominence to visual elements.

Noé: The photographs from 2009–2014 are based on specific objects and materials related to instruments from the live repertoire or installations. They’re partly documentation, partly abstracted extensions of the music. We think of the photographs as emblems, or as visual entries into the compositions, although recent compositions and their imagery have become parallel processes that cross.

Joseph: I think the connection is becoming more explicit. We’ll talk about a photographic process and then think about that action or that process in relation to the music directly, whereas before, they were running simultaneously, but maybe not necessarily speaking to each other directly, outside of putting it all together. I think an album like Cores/Eruct, there was a photograph that was taken for the inside of that had a lot to do with the way we wanted to put the music together and visually represent it.

Conceal from Vantage/Cordoned, 2014

Lise: In some ways, this is a retrospective conversation. Now you’re moving in a different direction with your new photographic works, but this exchange is about the previous ones so you’re thinking back on when you were composing the sound pieces, in terms of photography and images.

Noé: We can compare that approach to photography with the video Bypass. It opens on a black screen, then a little bit of visual noise from the camera being aimed at nothing. The visual noise and darkness go in and out. Then slowly, you start seeing an edge, and then more light information comes in, and then the edge becomes a circle. Then that circle becomes what you recognize as a funnel.  The light continues to change, and the edges change along with the light. It’s a very slow process of an image coming to light, and then burning, like a photograph in a darkroom.

We think of video photographically, more to do with stillness, objects, and light, than with action or movement. We’re interested in the capture and generation of sound and music, and capturing the source objects visually as well, to see how these physical objects exist in music and in images.

Ingrown from Cores/Eruct, 2014

Lise: When you say the object exists in the music and in the image, is it that the object is being used to create the sound?

Noé: Yes. The backside of the Cores/Eruct packaging is a photo of a funnel. The funnel is one of the first sounds you hear when you play the CD. So there’s the sound of air through the funnel, and then there’s the image of the funnel. The funnel’s perspective may not be immediately recognizable, but in that comes the sensation of a funnel in a void.

Joseph: It’s a very strange, circular image that seems like it could be referencing all sorts of things. The focus is all strange because the funnel’s so tall, and the photographic process sort of flattens that out. It’s just an unusual, uncanny thing to look at. You don’t look at that and think, “Oh, I bet that’s what I’m listening to on the record.” It’s not like an instrument glamor shot.

Noé: Although there is a metallic relationship, which may be perceived in the sound. That’s very hard to say, because air against an edge… you can’t tell what the material is, and yet, having seen the image before listening may emphasize a metallic quality in the sound.

Lise: Just so I can understand a little more clearly, the recent video making has intensified your interest and your inquiry into photography. At the moment, we’re talking specifically about photography. For our larger conversation about the visual in relation to your work, I’m thinking more generally. For example, the visual objects or forms that you imagine, construct, hear, and see in your sound practice—and the ways you conceptualize these visual and sonic objects before they are used in photographs or video, whether they’re made for documentary or other purposes.

Noé: I think it is in conversation with you that we’ll find a way to talk about that. We work primarily on sound and music, and the visual work has supported that focus. However working visually is increasingly becoming part of the process of composition, presentation, and representation

Open On Occluding Devices, 2017 (screen Coppice’s new work)

Joseph: It has mattered for us in the past as well. We’ve been playing on a wooden table because the way things look is important, and so playing on a plastic foldout table is not something that supported the music well, or the experience.

Noé: There’s something about the surface where the instruments are placed.

Joseph: We performed facing each other for specific compositions, always sort of locked together, facing one another, in the middle of something. That kind of visual presentation was very intentional and important to the music.

Noé: Performing Compound Form in that orientation was partly visual and partly technical regarding microphones and processing. However it was a technical specification that was very inflexible, leaning towards installation even if we performed it on stage settings.  Those performances had a visual identity of symmetry, like a close-up duel between an 1890’s portable pump organ and a modified dual deck boombox. The music emerges from the relationships between the conditions of the instrument and the device.

© Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2011. Photo by Nathan Keay.

Lise: Let’s unpack that.

Noé: It’s the bringing together of pump organ and tapes. In that pairing comes a music that is archival, in a way. Even though it’s happening now, it comes from instruments of altered conditions with relationships to age. To place the tape machine on a folding wooden table is to form a relationship to the wood of the folding organ. It’s an environment.

The back photograph of Vantage/Cordoned is light through foam. Foam isn’t an instrument, but it’s what we use when transporting the pump organ around. What’s around the instrument is important, and that’s how some materials from the photographs were selected. We think of them as “peripheral materials.” The sound sculpture exhibition Vinculum (Passes) was the first instance of, what if we bring these materials together into sculptures, rather than instruments? What if sounds from our instruments are induced into these materials, as to extend their identity?

Lise: As I listen, I’m thinking about the materials Noé described, the wood, metal, foam and the different modes of perceiving and thinking about them individually and together. And about your shift  from looking at them as instruments to considering them as potential sculptures. So here’s the question, Joseph. What about all the electronic stuff?

Transformer from Vinculum (Passes), 2012

Joseph: The gizmos. The table of stuff.

Lise: The gizmos and their appearance. The knobs, the wires. I’ll just call them electronics. Whatever forms they take, which are probably going to be supplanted and archival before long.

Noé: Just to put an asterisk on that, we’re already thinking of air being archival, so we’re faking it. Fake air! The theme of archive came up very early into the collaboration with Vinculum.

Lise: So if we think about threads that have continued throughout your collaboration, then archive is important.

Noé: It would be a major one. We ask ourselves, is this an archival photo, or is this an artistic photo? Some of the photographs have a scientific feel because they’re objects in sterilized or blank spaces.

Lise: You said archival as opposed to an artistic photo. Are you using it in the sense of documentary? Artistic things can be archived too. To me, an archive is something you keep.

Joseph: Archives are not necessarily neutral or bland, they’re just collections.

Noé: I think they’re at that edge. Lighting can create mood and guide the viewing more towards aesthetic or abstract viewing rather than neutral viewing, which is how I tend to think of the perspective of archiving or documenting. These are boundaries we’re exploring now.

Droopy, 2013

Lise: It seems you have interesting Duchampian questions here. He was asking similar questions, for example, to what extent does context drive and define perception?

Noé:  What is it to take it out, to see an object in a vacuum? It is what it is. You hear it and you see it. It exists in multiple realms.

Lise: When you make those photos, are you thinking of a sonic experience? What the sound was and the experience, the quality of the sound itself.

Noé: Not so much representing specific things, but just the mood.

Lise: So how hearing it might make someone feel—the experience of listening. And in a way, you’re translating the sensibility. You can’t have a visual experience that’s a one to one equivalency with a sonic experience, but there can be resonance between the feeling associated with the  two experiences.

Joseph: It’s an interesting question, because I don’t think the images are particularly sonic, in terms of how they end up looking. They don’t make me think of the way the music sounds, but they make me think of the way the music feels. The impact of the sound and the sound itself are very different from each other.

If you were going to represent the raw sound of the album, these images would have to be much more complicated. But if you’re trying to represent some aspect of the impact of the music, then you are of course reacting to the sound, but you’re not representing the sound. You’re representing your internalizing of that. I think it’s a very weird thing to think about representing a sound by showing an object, just like I think it’s a weird thing to think you’re representing a sound by creating a recording with a microphone or even with two microphones. I think that’s a big part of archive being our work, and what I keep saying about the funnel as an object, and then the funnel a second time as an image, and then the funnel again in the sound world. We have an archival recording of the funnel, but it’s being activated by air being blown across the edge.

Noé: And neither make sound on their own.

Shruti box in Memory of Whisper Room, 2014

Joseph: Neither of those two things would make a sound, but we put them together, we framed it, we gave it time. Why did we do that? I’m not sure the question, is it an art piece or an archive is really the question, as much as how are we thinking about what it is we’re capturing. Whether it’s a photo or an object, thinking about this funnel is unlocking a lot of thoughts that I have.

Noé:     I think the question is important, because we’re not choosing a funnel only because of the way it looks, but its relationship to age, material, and the instruments. That funnel and other objects might not have been around if it weren’t for the instruments. The instruments cast an environment of objects.

Lise:     In environment, you’re talking about the relationships, the context, and again, the sensibility. It’s not just the materiality, of course. It’s the connotations of the objects themselves, being historical and antiquated. A funnel that size, one thinks of equipment, mechanics.

Joseph: A car, or larger.

Lise: It’s not like my kitchen funnel that I tried yesterday, in vain, to make coffee. I put one of those paper coffee filters in it. All the water rushed through that one point and ripped a hole in the paper filter.

Noé:     The functions and processes that belong to these objects, right? Even when we go back to saying, why foam? Foam may seem an unimportant material, but it points to the protection for the instrument.

Lise:     What’s foam? It’s a lot of air.

Joseph: Yeah, it’s aerated plastic.

Noé:  It’s porous. The through-ness of funnels, and the foam, too. The air through the object.

Lise: And the foam makes it possible to move the organ to get it to the performance. It’s this spongy structure. It’s sort of a contradiction.

Noé: Copper mesh, or even this ring, air goes through it. The fire bellows over there on the wall, or these, that, the mesh.

Joseph: For any of the raw things and any of the mechanically powered things. For the electronics, things change a little bit, but it’s still about pushing through. It’s just not air anymore. It’s air that’s been captured and has to change domain.

Lise: With the electronics, it’s electrical impulses.

Joseph: Changing air pressure comes in as a varying voltage. Then, if it gets recorded to the tape, it has to be converted into a magnetic field that then becomes orientations of mineral on the strip of plastic. And then, of course, back to voltage again, until finally it gets back into the air somewhere. Maybe through a speaker, or maybe it gets passed through some copper as mechanical vibrations in a solid material.

Lise: When you said that, about how it gets back to air again, because that’s how we hear it, right? The sound waves come back to us through the air. Thanks Joseph for that sonic lesson. As an anthropologist, I shift perspectives too. Like what you described you’re doing with the funnel. We’ll return to this in later conversations, so this is a preliminary: How do you place sound art within the larger field of contemporary art.

Noé: I was recently in Arcana, an art bookstore in LA. I couldn’t believe it had a sound art section!

Joseph: A bookstore had a sound art section? That’s great. I’ve heard it said that sound art people get pretty defensive in art contexts, and I don’t feel like that’s true. But I do feel like we still have to be a little bit insistent that there’s a lot of art made with sound, and that there are some assumptions made about contemporary art that seem to fully ignore the history of sonic practice.

Noé: Visuals are not unrelated to the other senses, especially the sense of listening in our case.

Coppice in performance at Silent Funny, Chicago, 2016. Photo by Nathan Keay.