The Sound of Two Ants Marching. Doug Van Nort’s Sonic Sculpture
Doug Van Nort talks about Being a Sonic Sculptor and Performance
Doug Van Nort’s latest sound obsessions include feedback, glitches, cicadas, ants, and bees. “Ants sound like a textural crackly army of fire or like little crows,” he says. “There’s a hive quality.”
I ask him how the ants make sounds; they’re not the most vocal of animals. “The quality of passing over the surface is what makes the sound,” he says. “When recording wind, it’s usually the wind acting on something, such as wind going through the trees. You’re not recording just wind, you’re recording something else.”
Van Nort is fascinated by sound. “I care about what speaks to me in terms of the richness of the material,” he says. He takes sounds, both those he collects himself and an amassed library from other samplers, and uses them in electronic improvisational compositions.
“It’s a kind of sound art,” he says. “I think about it as sculpting with sound. I like to stretch sounds out in time and frequency, hacking and filtering, thinking as a sculptor does with material. There’s something about searching for structures that might emerge from the material. I’m also looking into the material in a specific space and discovering what might be teased out of it.” Another way he describes his practice is “sonic dowsing.”
Van Nort’s music relies in part on his very open interpretation of melody and harmony. “For me, anything is a melody,” he says. “Raking objects across the desk I’m sitting at now. That’s a melody. It’s a sequence of actions that has meaning in this context. Harmony can be anything. Harmony is the notion of concurrence of things that somehow work together.”
This open approach allows Van Nort to collaborate with different kinds of musicians, even acoustic ones. “I have different configurations when I play with acoustic musicians. I might grab some materials they are performing. It becomes source material that I might later re-present. I might stretch it out in time to make a long layer and create harmonics that relate to what they’re playing , or some kind of modulation or motion, which creates a different kind of pulse and it informs the flow of what happens.”
He works not so much by watching waveforms, but rather by moving his hand over a continuous surface — namely, a graphics tablet (a Wacom). “When I’m working on my setup, I’m working on different ways of manipulating that space,” he says. “I think of it as a field of sounds. I’m moving through this field, grabbing these digital artifacts, and routing them through a feedback process that I’m listening to. I have waveforms on the screen, but I just glance at that. It’s more about having a continuous flow with my hand and hearing what happens. I’m lost in the moment of performance.”
In the upcoming show, Van Nort is playing with Émilie Mouchous and Alexandre St. Onge. “I like to play with a lot of people,” Van Nort says, “There are so many great musicians in Montreal. Émilie does crackly, textural stuff with analogue electronics. I do digital. I use my voice, as does she. I thought that was a nice pairing. We decided to invite Alexandre who works with bass and electronics.” Together, they’ll be playing “solos, duos, and trios in one large set in every configuration. We have a structure planned. We’ll do one set like that and then we’ll pass signals to one another like a network, to create a new kind of source material.”
The performance is not rehearsed. Van Nort prefers it this way. “For me, it gives an edge to the performance,” he says. “There’s an edge to the performers when that happens. It gives a realness to the music. In rehearsal you get comfortability. This gives rawness that has its own character.”
Doug Van Nort plays with Émilie Mouchous and Alexandre St. Onge at Casa del Popolo on December 22. 8:30 p.m.