Subtlemost Sound Force: An Interview with Noé Cuéllar

April 13, 2011 · Print This Article

photo by Jessica Turcios, 2010

I don’t remember the first time I met Noé, but I do remember the first time I saw his work. He and Joseph Clayton Mills performed in a dark room while standing opposite one another. Noé had an accordian strapped to his back and he played, very softly, while Joseph moved closer and farther away. Depending on their distance from one another, something concealed in Joseph’s hand (perhaps a hearing aid?) changed pitch. That performance epitomizes what I’ve seen of Noé’s work. He is dedicated to creating an awareness around silence within a performative space. The manifestation of the body, as a tool for the range of sound is integral, as are the relationships between performative bodies. His ability to instill the necessary parameters for such an awarenes–particularly in collaborative settings–is, to me, remarkable. I wanted to ask him more about that, but felt like direct questions would somehow do away with the very thing I was trying to ask. Consequently I tried to ask around the idea of silence, in order to better understand the way Noé uses sound. Because sound requires space, that seemed a good place to start.

Caroline Picard: How do you think of space?

Noé Cuéllar: Space evokes potential, but also communicates very directly to my sense of placement.  I think a sense of placement paves the way for the rest of the senses… it’s like a background sense made up by all the senses. I enjoy compound forms even when the individual pieces can still be recognized, in this case, space is the glue.

CP: It sounds like you think of space as something both sculptural (3-d figures) and linguistic (i.e. compound verbs). I appreciate the idea that space would be some experiential amalgam of those fields, even though I’m not quite sure how that would work. Is that what you mean? What do you mean by compound forms?

NC: Yeah, it’s like our sense of space is happening before we find out how we actually feel.  I’m in a room now, but a second ago I was just fine without actively thinking how comfortable it is.  I think of artistic expression as a compound form that always involves more than one thing.

CP: How do you use space as a medium for performance?

NC: The outcomes are quite unexpected when the sense of physical space is combined with the spatial sense of the actual sound.  I think my work most often expresses rigidity and confines, but space is what can allow [the work] to be experienced with more spread – perhaps more than I would choose to imply in the work itself.  I would say I focus primarily on sound, but with a sense of belonging in a space.

CP: I’d love to hear about some examples of how this has occurred in different pieces…

NC: Last year I composed Kilter, a piece for Jeb Bishop (trombone) with accordion, and two speakers inside boxes with hinges that would rattle.  I had in mind pressure and magnetic repulsion, yet the site-specific performance gave it a more wide-ranging effect, even in a dark, gritty basement with a short ceiling.

I’ve also been working with Joseph Kramer as Coppice, making site-specific installations and site-variable compositions, recently at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where the space was so large we were able to prevent any of our sounds from becoming part of a whole “surround experience,” but remain dislocated and in motion, scattering the perception of their source.

Coppice performing "Vinculum (Coincidence)", part of Without You I’m Nothing: Interactions, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago Photo: Nathan Keay, © 2011 Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

CP: What, to you, is the relationship between the space inside of an instrument and the space around an instrument?

NC: The outside speaks for the inside.

CP: Can you talk a little bit about your collaboration with Joseph Clayton Mills? I was just thinking of the piece where you stood opposite one another and he kept opening and closing his hand, to change the frequency of buzz that magically manifested and grew stronger the closer you moved to one another. Then too, I think of more “traditional” pieces, where you sit down and perform for a definite period of time…

NC: Working with him is very factual, much in natural state.  We share a fascination with the attributes of objects and mechanisms, their hidden sound character and emotional effect.  It makes me think a lot about photography, which we also practice on our own.  A lot of what we do together is often a simple gesture, “subtlemost” more than “minimalist.”  I think we both find that simplicity very lasting.

CP: Will you talk a little bit about the way you use silence in your work?

NC: Silence is space but also glue.  It’s an encouragement that is easy to miss.  I like using silence as a way of pronouncing presence, or as a bearer of tension, or as a moment to coast on something that just happened.  Silences can be essentially the same in different moments, but it is how it is accessed that makes it feel different.  It carries the weight of the three tenses, it can be very prominent in itself, while also reflecting personal inner processes.  It can even be felt even when sounds are present.

CP: Do you feel like you are interrupting silence? Or are silence and sound variations within the same medium?

NC: My listening is constantly active, therefore I wouldn’t say I interrupt silence with my sound work, but rather bring the sound more forward to emphasize the moment.  Silence can be framed between those sounds, but in the end I feel like sound and silence are only evocations of a deeper level of silence – and of sound potential – more than what they simply sound like.  The repercussions of focused listening tap on that depth, beyond the temporal.

Performing "H" with Joseph Clayton Mills & Carol Genetti, part of Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain, curated by Jessica Turcios Photos: Seonaid Valiant, 2010

CP: I know that you regularly collaborate with other performers as well; sometimes you do so in a more traditional improvisation venue (like The Green Mill, for instance) and at other times you seem to locate yourself more definitively within a contemporary art/performance oeuvre. How do you negotiate those different contexts? Does a venue change the work you do?

NC: Venues shape the work more than they change it.  What feels right about performances in site-specific and gallery settings is that the audience-performer space is diffused, with more listening nodes available, and open to variation.  The stage setting has the advantage of centering a performance as a clear message.

CP: Can you talk a little bit about transcription? Or, how you translate and document your temporal, acoustic sound on a static piece of paper?

NC: I’m interested in some precise musical qualities, but also variable, interpersonal, implicit qualities that happen in the process of working one-on-one with a performer.  Transcription varies from one work to another; sometimes I don’t put anything on paper, or very little just for my own reminder.  When working with performers I let them write their own parts over a skeleton score I make for them. We talk, try, sharpen, and write.

CP: Do you use that score as a kind of document? I’m thinking about John Cage’s “score’s'” for instance; do they look like that? Or are they more traditional pages of notes?

NC: It’s a document of an idea but it’s interesting to use that word, especially when thinking of it as a document for a future event.  Sometimes they take a more traditional shape but with custom symbols, sometimes they’re just scribbles, and sometimes they’re graphic.

Drawing 2/3 from Harrow/Dormant (2010)

CP: Can you give me an example?

With Harrow/Dormant I wanted to figure out what my interpretation of a graphic score would be, and what it would be like to suggest sound from a more abstract visual departure.  I combined drawings with directions to set a structure on which the performers can stay afloat their own decisions. Julia Miller has been interpreting it with incredible tact several times now, as part of a study for a larger project of hers… which is great because multiple iterations reveal how sensitive interpretation is to one’s standpoint.

(See this video)

CP: How do you think about sound when it is happening?

NC: Sound is a constant vibration that stimulates our impulse to imagine, stir remembrance of events that perhaps haven’t quite happened to us directly.  It’s kind of way of keeping check of our experiential ability and our location.  It’s a way to be present and also to be somewhere else, beyond our windows.

CP: You enact such precision in your work; I’m trying to understand how you think about that precision, and how you locate the “action” of your work in time and space…so somehow, sound becomes the vehicle for that action, right?

NC: I regard presence and intention very highly as a basis.  In my mind those two things almost make sound all by themselves.

CP: But then what does that mean? For sound to be a vehicle? A vehicle for what?

NC: A vehicle for transportation…

CP: It’s also really interesting to think about intention—I’m not sure I understand what you mean by that…it sounds like you’re thinking of your mind as an auxiliary component—and extension of the instrument?

NC: My sister is a graphic designer, and browsed many art and design magazines when I was growing up.  I have many vivid memories of her explaining contemporary artworks to me and she would talk a lot about intention.  I remember there was an advertisement all white with only one small logo in the middle, and I asked her why they would waste so much space, and she pointed out that the blank space lead our eyes to the logo, that was the focus.  That got me thinking about doing only what felt like enough.  Insights like that built up very solidly, and I’m reminded of that particular one quite often.  The intentional framework for a message.





In The Midst of Life : A Requiem at The Lincoln Park Conservatory

December 22, 2010 · Print This Article

It snowed the night before. The morning was bright and sunny and I missed the idea of mountains.

We went to the Lincoln Park Conservatory, pausing just inside to take off coats. The green interior made me blink. Some plants looked familiar, others unusual, still others boughed under the weight of themselves, with signs reading, Please don’t touch the fruit.

This 20th Century building houses ancient plants; plants older than dinosaurs. One fern, I read recently, was planted in 1891. Imagine all those root systems, dug deep in the ground, older than any of us, housed in what they once called “Paradise under glass.” The steel/iron vestible, rife with foliage evokes  nostalgia.  I couldn’t help reconstructing some phantom of an American past. Add to this the Florasonic wall card, explaining the conservatory was named after the late president shortly after his assassination; or that once there was a cemetery on the park grounds–because of health concerns the city  tried to relocate it when the Chicago fire burned the city. Records of those unmoved corpses were lost.

http://hiddentruths.northwestern.edu/fire_accounts.html

http://hiddentruths.northwestern.edu/fire_accounts.html

Annie Feldmeier Adams uses this site to create “Requiem (for Lincoln Park Conservatory)” with Steven Hess–a four-channel installation that loops about every 20 minutes.

We sat on a bench to absorb the sound. My coat felt bulky in my lap. I drank tea, relieved to be warm and imagining old ghosts snoring beneath our feet.

A heart beat kept the pulse of the room, in addition to a regular, though light, mechanical clacking–it sounded like a whirring fan but could have been a clock. Underneath those time-keepers lay  ambient, changing waves of synthesized tones. Sometimes it sounded like there was a voice in the room, though I couldn’t place it. The bench was small, but we nevertheless fell into silence, trying to discern that voice, to parse its ethereal location. Visitors came and went, adding to our sonic landscape. While watching a large group of tourists gather and peer at some leaves, I felt very still by comparison. I smiled and my friend laughed. Sometimes we heard the crunch of gravel. We looked at each other. “Is that the recording?” she asked. “I can’t tell,” I answered. “I think so?” The more we concentrated the more difficult it became to distinguish the sound of the installation from the sounds of our environment. “Maybe this is what it’s like to be psychic,” I thought. There would be an inevitable flattening of experience, where the common reality was somehow crowded by a psychic one–difficult to discern ghost-sounds with living ones. The plants seemed complacent–happy even. Perhaps because they grow vertically, distinctions of past, present and future are irrelevant.  A passing helicopter broke the spell. “That’s a helicopter,” my friend said. “Yes,” I agreed. “I wasn’t sure at first, but now that you say so, I think it’s above us.”

We left soon after, walking back through the plants and out to the shock of a city in snow.

At home, I thought of the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park, San Francisco–a smaller replica of the Paris Legion of Honor, the San Francisco version houses a private art collection that opened in 1924. In 1867 the city purchased the property from what used to be a cemetary. The bodies were moved to another location–or at least, the markers were moved. They converted the property into a golf course, and then The Legion of Honor. It all seemed pretty straight forward. Nevertheless, “in the summer of 1993, during renovation and expansion of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, about 300 corpses from the Gold Rush era—two of them still clutching rosaries, others were wearing dentures and Levis—were unearthed from what appears to be an old pauper’s graveyard. Some experts say another 11,000 bodies might lie underneath the museum grounds’ according to a Los Angeles Times article (12 November 1993, A-23).” In both instances, at the Lincoln Park Conservatory and at the Legion of Honor, a direct alchemy seems to occur; the bodies of predessors remain below ground, while above public houses exhibit creative expression like tents against the uselessness of mortality. I’m not even sure what it means exactly; I’m not sure where to position myself in history’s continuum, or  how exactly it is continuous. But the effort of production, its fruit: I can comprehend that. I can comprehend my position between the ground and the sky. I know what it is to sit with a friend on a bench. And while listening to Requiem, I had an experience of history, one nevertheless difficult to put into words.

The Experimental Sound Studio has been working with the Chicago Park District since 2001, using the Fern Room as a site for exhibition. It’s an amazing curatorial project about partnership and symbiosis. The experience of Requiem uses that foundation, and particularly during these dark days of winter, getting a dose of greenery is good. If you’re in town for the holidays and need to escape or entertain get a hot drink and walk into the conservatory, take a bench in the Fern room and listen.