The matter of things: the organic dimension of the sound

A conversation with Scott Gibbons

Enrico Pitozzi


I. The logic of the composition

M.#10 Marseille (2004) by Romeo Castellucci|Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio and Scott Gibbons


I would like to start this conversation with a definition about the notion of composition: in your long experience, what is composition and what does this concept involve in your imagination of the sound ?

I find it most useful to think about a composition as including all of the interlocking components that the audience can perceive (consciously or not) including, but not limited to music, sound design, text (spoken or subtitled), lighting, scenography, and any actions or movements. In practice, I often use musically terms to discuss with the other designers and artists on a project about, for example, "the moment where the lights play their drum solo in this section", or "this coda from the scenography is taken up by the sound design here". Of course in the contemporary situation there is often a clear symbiosis between video and audio, but I often find it necessary to think also about elements such as the emotional state of a character, or the way that the scenography and lighting are working together, or the presence of a prop on stage - as clear lines of musical notation to be worked into the arrangement. Not as lines, which should be illustrated, embellish upon or demonstrated, but as legitimate musical elements in and of themselves.

In this way, the music does not become a soundtrack, and the action does not follow the music to become like a music video; rather, the whole of the piece functions with an internal harmony and elegance, as one single living body comprised of different organs.

This kind of unity can give a greater impact than having multiple streams synchronized but working independently.

In this moment on the electronic scene, according to me, there are two tendencies: an internal organic line in which the materials are organized in order to outline a narrative fabric; on the other hand, an external organic line in which the materials operate towards abstraction. Nevertheless, the two layers above mentioned (the sound and the visual) are not opposed to each other, but they're both inscribed in a system of shades. Could you speak about this tension on narrative/abstractive dimension in your work ?

Although I will often use a very specific narrative to guide my process, I try to obscure recognizable or identifying details from the listener's perception. Often people give contradicting accounts of their interpretations, and any two people can have completely different impressions. That's fine. When I work with a narrative, I am not interested in relating a specific story. The events and characters can be plastic, like in our dreams. The logic underneath should be cohesive of course, and the lines should lead us somewhere which is astounding or surprising, preferably even inside ourselves. But there is no need for the lines to be reassuring or familiar. What is necessary is a taut structure and rigorous discipline in the research. This empowers the audience.



Scott Gibbons, What are doing it (live) – in (unreleased) 2002



This process tells of an important relationship, in your research, between art, science and technology. What does it mean for you, to relate the art and science ? At what level takes place in your work ?

That blurry space where one ends and the other begins is a great source for inspiration for me. My studio doesn't look very different than a science lab, and I've worked with many technology and software companies, scientists and researchers in their facilities to develop musical elements. At University, I took courses that enriched my understanding of composition in the departments of Fine Arts, Sociology, Anthropology, Mathematics and Physics; my final research project was actually split and shared between the departments of Philosophy and Art.

Art, science and technology. Each enriches, informs and directs the others in the same way that smell, taste and sight are all intertwined in one's appreciation of a fine meal: they are simply different angles of approaching the same thing.


II. The organic dimension of a sound

Scott Gibbons, Atlantic Ocean (in Imagined Compositions for Water) 2002



The tactile quality of a sound is an important characteristic of your work, like in Field notes (1999) or in Imagined Compositions for Water (2004): a form of “acoustic surgery”. Could you talk about a physical (or organic) dimension of sound in your concept of composition?

I like your suggestion about acoustic surgery. One of the first artists with whom I felt a strong affinity was Andreas Vesalius, who made anatomical drawings from cadavers.

(Going back to your earlier question, I notice that I accused Vesalius of being an artist. He was actually an anatomist and physician!)

In the 1980's I designed my first public performances as multi-point installations. Instead of having an array of speakers directing sound towards the audience, I would place very special sounds in specific speakers, which would be suspended or placed throughout the room, and the audience was encouraged to freely pass through the rooms under their own direction. There was not sound coming continuously through all of the speakers; there was a natural dynamic and rhythm inside each one. I still work in this way. In theatre this is obvious because we have speakers placed very specifically – frontally, inside objects on the stage, firing into the scene, even in the seating for the audience – and we play with the spatialization, sometimes giving a more cinematic presentation, sometimes in a more hyper-real manner.

And now, it's true, over time I find myself less and less trying to chisel away the extraneous material until I find the thing I'm searching for inside. Instead, I find myself diving in deeply and exploring from inside. It is a form of surgery, you're absolutely correct. Rather than trying to bring something out, I make incisions and go inside. I like making field recordings. I like using hydrophones and contact microphones to amplify the inaudible. I like using 'found' formulas and sequences from nature to compose. I'm much more curious about these trajectories than I am about anything that a synthesizer or software could do, in part because I am delighted to play the role of spectator. I control the engineering and construction of the montage, but the source material exists independently of my intensions. I enter, explore, take notes, and depart. Then I try to define and encapsulate what I found so compelling about the experience.

Scott Gibbons, Field Notes (1999)



This organic character of sound is used to The Cryonic Chants (2006) realized with Chiara Guidi and Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio. Could you speak about the sound process of this concert ?

The Cryonic Chants focused around texts, which were generated by the autonomous movements of a goat. (The Cryonic Chants grew out of Tragedia Endogonedia, which was an examination of Tragedy; the etymology of the word 'Tragedy' invokes the song of the sacrificial goat.)

A floor was covered with the alphabetical representation of several DNA sequences particular to goat-ness (of growing goat horns for example). That same goat was placed on that floor, and - as he roamed quite freely - the letters over which he stood or passed were recorded as a phonemic sequence.

For Tragedia Endogonidia, Chiara & I had already created a large library of sound material, most of it created through manipulation of the voice & body (teeth, bones) interacting with electronics (modular synthesizers used as sound processors) and acoustics (passing sound through tubes, swinging speakers, using the natural reverbs of different spaces). The Cryonic Chants was realized as a concert, so there was a certain amount of samples and prepared elements taken from this sound library. Then I also had recordings from the video documentation of the goat's feet as he walked, and a few of his bleats.

A basic skeletal structure was synchronized with video footage of the goat on the floor; of that whole process. Then I played live samples - some composed and some improvised, and some from the video footage - and processed the singer's voices while they sang the goat-generated texts. So nearly all of the sound was vocal, or at least bodily, but all of it was highly processed and manipulated.


Chiara Guidi and Scott Gibbons The Cryonic Chants (2006)



In this way you are constantly seeking a physics of the sound, perception level of a sounds, of the variation created by relation between sound and silence. In other words, this is the definition of an inaudible background texture that makes the audible stand out and be perceived. Could you speak about this relation in your composition between audible and inaudible, for example in Unheard, sonic arrangements from the microcosmos (2014) ?

My intension for Unheard... was that the audience should feel as though they were children looking through a microscope for the first time. I remember that delight I felt as a child when I saw microscopic events - cellular structures and life forms from river water - but only a very small round window in the center would ever be in focus, while the peripheral was dramatically blurred and distorted, and it was very difficult to stay fixed on any one image for any length of time. So I wanted it to be a little frustrating as well as delightful, with a constant background noise and distortion, with fleeting exquisite crystalline or insectile images passing through occasionally.

Scott Gibbons Unheard


You have made a lot of collaborations, in particular with Groupe F – theatre of fire or Romeo Castellucci and Sociètas Raffaello Sanzio. Could you speak around the technical process for the realization of FireWorks pt 6 (2003) with Groupe F ?

At the beginning we wanted to work on a project that completely integrated music and pyrotechnics together. We didn't want fireworks on music, or a fireworks design with soundtrack. We wanted to fuse the two elements together to create a hybrid form that none of us had seen before. And it didn't have to be great; it just had to be something new. Christophe Berthonneau (the artistic director of Groupe F) spoke about how he loved the sound of pure fireworks, and he had a recording made at one of Groupe F's fireworks shows from a far distance where it was possible to hear only the "pam! pam! pam! tetetetetetetetetet POUM!" of the fireworks, without the accompanying music or roar of the spectators. So we started with that recording, and a library of sounds that I assembled in Groupe F's workshop of more delicate sounds such as flamethrowers, etc. I used an e-Mu sampler and Digital Performer software to create a piece of musique concrète that would embrace the real sounds of the pyrotechnics and make it unclear to the spectators which sounds were real and which were prepared. Christophe and I worked very hard on the music together - even while he was simultaneously designing the pyrotechnics - because he knew very well which of Groupe F's devices would give specific colors, timbres and volumes. Although he is not a musician in the traditional sense, he approached the project as a very skilled and knowledgeable composer and arranger. We also had sections where I would "play" the fireworks as percussion from a manual controller to further fuse the two.



Scott Gibbons & Groupe F, Fire works (2003)



I am interested at the "sonorous form" of the time. According to me, in your work, this aspect is important. For example in Alphabet (2002) composed in collaboration with Romeo Castellucci, or in other compositions. In which sense your work about the sound manipulates time ?

We humans are aware of time, but we have no control over it. Our awareness of time is one element that can be played with however. When time seems to be compressed or distended, our brains try to compensate for that sensation. In that vertigo it's possible to inject something...


III. The acoustic presences:
        the environment as an atmosphere

The sound is presence. I would like to talk about a particular work: spectrography (2003) released by video artists Cristiano Carloni and Stefano Franceschetti. This work is realized in two different forms: in one way, for the Tragedia Endogonidia by Romeo Castellucci and Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio; in a second way as a video installation. Could you speak about this ?

Carloni and Franceschetti work very differently than Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio. In cinema and theatre the relationship between director, performer, and spectator are completely different. Also, while someone may view a film or video repeatedly, each repetition in theatre is unique so it is impossible to see the same performance twice. Carloni and Franceschetti were working with memories, while Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio were working with the act. So even if the subject matter is the same, the direction that the music should take in each case is different. Both are rooted in shape and color, but the music for spectrography is concerned with memory, which is imprecise, fragmentary, recallable, and an occasion to reflect. The music for Tragedia Endogonidia is more immediate and physical, and concerned with necessary reactions to tactile experiences.

Could you speak about your sound conception in relation to the "logic of the shape and colors"? In other words, as you transform a sensation of color into sound in your perspective ?

For sure, when collaborating with other people it's very common to use phrases like "this section needs to be more blue", or "here we need the sound to be more shades of grey; it's too colorful." I use phrases like this also when I'm taking notes for myself during rehearsals or workshops. I don't know how much of this is cultural and how much is biological, but this kind of communication certainly works most of the time without requiring further elaboration. Internally, for me, it's very practical.

Color and sound are both waveforms, albeit of different matter: color is an expression of electromagnetic radiation; sound is the vibration of molecules in a medium. A few people even claim to be able to perceive the one with the sensory organ of the other; to "see colors" (this is called synesthesia). There are many parallels in how we work with the two: color hue is a measurement of wave length and so is sound pitch / frequency; color saturation is similar to audio bandwidth; and brightness and volume are both expressions of intensity. So the leap from one to another can be quite direct. For example: purples and blues vibrate at lower frequencies, so a purple or blue sound might consist of lower tones and fewer harmonics. Oranges and reds vibrate at higher frequencies and could be expressed with higher pitches and be rich in overtones.

But I don't imagine the transformation and relationship between color and sound as being a simple formula to plug numbers into. Each instance requires a unique, deliberate and conscious approach.

I remember in Tragedia Endogonidia ep. M#10 Marseilles there was a lot of play and work with this congruence. Not to mundanely connect blue light with low frequencies, but to work in a harmonious way and to be aware of dynamics across both spectrums; to simultaneously create a musical arrangement and lighting design in which each is completed only by the other. In fact, when faced with the task of creating a soundtrack CD for Tragedia Endogonidia (released in 2007 by Rarovideo as Summa Tragedia), Chiara & I felt we had to work on it as an altogether new project, to re-arrange the music so it could exist independently as an exclusively sonic object without any of the visual elements it had been composed with originally.

In your work, especially in the compositions for the Theatre, the sound in relation of image organizes an immersive environment. What does it mean, for you, organize an atmosphere through the sound ?

An atmosphere can be dynamic and timbrally rich, "silent", or overloading the senses, but its function is to provide the context, which allows elements to be made clear or obscured. Our brains evaluate weight, color, density, etc based on contrasts and memory (is the dress blue and black, or white and gold ?) so the atmosphere serves to either give or deny the necessary information the audience needs to perceive and comprehend the events / actions / characters before it. Atmosphere is not a place and time, it's an analytical tool.

Spectrography II


What are your actual projects ?

At the moment I'm working with Romeo Castellucci and Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio on Dialogue between a camera and the light, which is a small piece for Paris this coming March (2016); with Groupe F on Feux Gaulois – a large-scale project for the summer with acrobats, music, video projections, flames, and fireworks; and with AΦE on Whist, which is a 360 Virtual Reality film installation. I'm also constructing some new stereo tube reverbs units for my studio using old organ parts (fortunately for me, Chicago is the historic home for the Hammond Organ Company !), and refurbishing and modding a few vintage synthesizers : I just finished working on a Maxi-Korg from the 1970's which is now semi-modular and has a beautiful black walnut housing.


Biographical Notes

Scott Gibbons has been composing electronic and electro-acoustic music for more than 25 years, with a two-fold exploration into the possibilities of natural acoustic sound on the one hand, and those of audio technology on the other. Although he is a seminal and influential composer of Dark Ambient and micromusic, his work is not so easily pigeonholed. His compositions demonstrate an acute balance between delicacy and physicality, often focusing around frequencies that are at the outermost limits of human hearing, and embracing quietness as a central element. A series of early releases on the Sub Rosa label – based only on singular natural sound sources such as stones and wind – has received praise from all over the world and provided inspiration for many "single-source" artists in their wake. He has created many unique electronic instruments for use on stage and has earned a strong reputation for his live performances. In fact his first live album – 1999's Field Notes – was one of All-Music Guide's "Best Albums of the Year" across all music genres. In addition to working with Contemporary artists from Dead Voices On Air, Not Breathing, and the Flying Luttenbachers, Gibbons has also collaborated with several Early Music ensembles including the Hilliard Ensemble and the Roberto Gini Ensemble. He has released more than 30 albums with various groups and solo, including seminal electro-acoustic works by Lilith: Stone (Sub Rosa : 1992) and Redwing (Sub Rosa : 1994) ; a suite created from the writings of a goat entitled The Cryonic Chants (KML Recordings: 2008) with Chiara Guidi ; forward-looking synthetic pop by Strawberry : Strawberry (Taigkyo: 2002) ; critically acclaimed electronica by Orbitronik : My Computer My Stereo (Thousand: 1999) ; and, with Golan Levin & Gregory Shakar: Dialtones / a Telesymphony (Staalplaat: 2002), a performance for more than 200 cell phones. He has increasingly sought to intertwine music with other disciplines, and to collaborate with artists from diverse fields. He has created music and sonic events for the award-winning theatre productions of Romeo Castellucci and Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio (Genesi: From the Museum of Sleep, Tragedia Endogonidia, Inferno); Flame Tornado (2005) with Kevin Binkert of Survival Research Labs; the pyrotechnic spectacle FireWorks (2003), and a string of commissions for the Palace of Versailles with Groupe F ; and Subterranean Sky (2001) with sculptor Georges deMerle. His compositions frequently appear in international loci such as the Swiss National Exposition (Switzerland), the ARS Electronica Festival (Austria) and the Louvre (France).

Enrico Pitozzi is a professor-in-Charge of “ Forms of Multimedia Stage” at the University of Bologna and teaching “Aesthetic interfaces” at the Accademia di Belle Arti - Brera in Milan. He was visiting professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal – UQAM (Canada) and visiting lecturer de l’Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris III (Francia) in the EU programme Teaching Staff Training 2013 and cours director at l’Universidad Internacional Menendez Pelayo de Valencia. He gives seminars and lectures at the Universidade Federal da Bahia (Brazil) and Universidade Federal Rio do Sul do Porto Alegre (Brazil) as well as the European Institutions and Universities. He currently collaborates with the scientific committee of the project “Performativité et effets de présence” directed by Josette Féral and Louise Poissant at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and the project “Poéticas Tecnològicas” directed by Ivani Santana at the Universidade Federal de Bahia (Brazil). He is a member of the observatory on the analysis of the movement led by choreographer Isabelle Choiniere (Montreal, Plymouth, Paris) and the multimedia laboraratory « MeLa research » at the IUAV University of Venice. In 2005 he took part in the workshop within the 37th International Theatre Festival of Venice Biennale directed by Romeo Castellucci and in 2013 at the “Biennale Danza College” directed by Virgilio Sieni. The essays: with A. Sacchi, Itinera.TrajectoiresdelaformeTragediaEndogonidia, Arles, Actes Sud, 2008; Corpograficos, in M. Isaacsoon e W. Lima Torres Neto (dir.), Corpo, performance, tecnologia, Porto Alegre, UFPR, dicembre 2012; De la constitution du corps de synthèse sur la scène performative: perception et technologies, in R. Bourassa, L. Poissant, (dir.), Personnage virtuel et corps performatif : effets de présence, Ste-Foy, Presses de l'Université du Québec, 2013; Perception et sismographie de la présence, in J. Féral (dir.), Le réel à l’épreuve des technologies, Rennes, Presses de l'Université de Rennes, 2013; Topologies des corps, in J.P. Massuet, M. Grosoli (dir.), La capture de mouvement, ou le modelage de l’invisible, Rennes, Presses de l'Université de Rennes, 2014. On presence, in « Culture Teatrali », n. 21, 2012; Magnetica. La composizione coreografica di Cindy Van Acker / La composition chorégraphique de Cindy Van Acker / The choreographic composition of Cindy Van Acker, Macerata, Quodlibet, 2015.and Bodysoundscape. Perception, movement and audiovisual in contemporary dance, in Yael Kaduri (dir.), The Oxford Handbook of Music, Sound and Image in the Fine Arts, Oxford, Oxford University Press, (spring 2016).