Text: Alec Coiro
Photo: Olimpia Dior
Video and Installation Photos Courtesy of the Artist
Daniel Neumann occupies the unique position that exists comfortably between the world of art and the world of sound. True, in addition to being an sound artist, he is also a sound engineer, but he’s the sound engineer at PS1: there is always an overlapping. Some highlights from career that illustrate this overlapping include being the acoustic designer of The World Is Sound at the Rubin Museum; he is also the live sound engineer for Diamanda Galás and David Guetta, who perform concerts for up to 80k people. And his tenure at MoMA PS1 went from 2013-16.
The occasion for our chat with Neumann was to discuss his sound installation Channels at Fridman Gallery in Soho. Visually, the show is dominated by a gigantic 56 channel mixing board, and there are 56 electronic sounds being emitted, one for each channel in the mixer. The result is a field of sound within the gallery space. It is not a monolithic field, however. It changes and adapts, and as the listener changes position the sounds the listener hears change as well.
The show runs from January 3-24. And as Neuman notes in our interview, the hours have been pushed back to 6pm-9pm in order to help blur the line between installation and performance.
As someone coming from a electronic music background, was it always your intention to have you work exist in an art gallery setting?
I actually studied Media Art at the Academy of Visual Arts Leipzig, with my personal focus on Sound Art. Then I did an exchange for a year to study Electronic Music Composition at a conservatory in Sicily, so I’ve always been in this zone between experimental music and installation art. It is my very interest to blur the categorial division between installation and performance – which was the main reason for me to shift the gallery hours of my show to 6p-9p. The evening hours I think suggest a different mode of perceiving – more like a screening or a concert, rather than the afternoon gallery stroll. But then there actually is an installation in a white cube gallery setting with various objects emitting sound and no human performers. The apparatus itself is animated/programmed, and the sound is changing over the course of the exhibition, which is more like a performance. And to me it feels like the installation is performing itself. So yeah, it is definitely intentional to present work in a gallery setting, and at the same time loosening the very framework of that setting.
How would you describe a 3D sound field?
A 3D sound field to me is a composed sound environment where sound is being emitted from all directions – not only 360 degree around the listener on one horizontal plane, like in most surround sound configurations, but adding height and depth. For CHANNELS I’ve approached the speaker placement in a very open format, responding to the specific architecture. For example, there’s a suspended speaker behind the free standing gallery wall pointed up, so that the sound is being reflected and diffused by the ceiling. And behind that same wall is a 21″ subwoofer that turns the entire wall, which is only one sheet of drywall, into a wildly vibrating membrane, like a big drumhead, saturating the entire gallery space. In sound field composition for me sound is the sculptural component. And the speakers are to be hidden as much as possible. Whereas with the objects, sound becomes their voice, and I see the sound as an articulation of that specific object. In this show, for the first time for me, I have both modi happening at the same time: sound field composition and object articulation.
The tile Channels immediately invokes the mixing board that is so central to the piece. Did you also intend for other meanings of the word Channel to come into play?
Yes, that’s definitely the literal, immediate meaning of the title – the 56 channels of the mixer as the center of the installation. It’s like how minimalism deals with titles, 4 squares in a corner, or something. But I think for my installation, as soon as you enter the space, this immediate meaning becomes insufficient. The sounds behave differently, the listener moves around in a complex field. There are the subjective channels of our perception – paying attention to different elements at different positions in the room. And then there are the sounds themselves: I made all of the sounds with analog synthesizers, with the idea to produce kind of concrete instances, sounds that don’t represent other things. I tried to even push my synth patches to points, where it doesn’t sound like synth playing anymore, as the ideal of course. In that more ambiguous space the sounds can take on other meanings and with the objects raise the question about what is being CHANNELED.
In sound field composition, for me, sound is the sculptural component.
You are an artist, an engineer and a curator. How interrelated are these occupations for you?
All 3 occupations revolve around sound, and since I work mostly in live sound, it’s always about how sound interacts with space. In sound engineering I’m using the same tools as in my own artistic practice, just with a very different goal. For a concert you want to neutralize the specific characteristic of a space and make the music sound the same regardless of the hall. In my practice I’m interested in the opposite, in articulating and foregrounding the specificities. Curatorially I’m organizing an event series that is focussed on spatial sound works, multi-channel compositions etc. So the spatiality of the sound works is a key factor there too. And through my sound engineering business I own a big multi-channel system that allows me to do the series. And I’m also getting booked as an engineer to mix multi-channel pieces, like for the Maryanne Amacher performance at the Kitchen last September i.e., or for contemporary orchestra with Alarm Will Sound. So it’s becoming more and more interrelated!
What do you find most unique about the aural experience of your sound installation (or sound installations in general). Is there a certain type of listening that you hope in evoke that is different from a person’s experience at a concert or in day-to-day life? How do the visual elements of the installation relate to the listening experience?
I’m kind of still exploring those questions myself! I think what’s unique about sound installations is that the visitors can come and go as they please and spend as little or much time in the installation as they want. Yet, here for CHANNELS, I tried to invoke a more focussed listening, therefore the shift of the gallery hours into the evening, and now I have some chairs around too, so people can really spend time and listen with a focus similar to a concert – not the typical art glimpse. On the other hand, unlike a concert setting, it’s not as formalized and restricted as being squeezed into rows of seats for a set amount of time, facing in one direction. The listeners here can move around, change positions, walk up closely to different objects and decide the length of the piece for themselves.
The visual elements I think of as anchors into the sound world. The mixing board is the sound distributor, in charge of the spatial mixing and one can follow along, it’s a dynamic visualization of the spatial distribution, usually hidden away and reserved for exclusive pleasure to the sound engineer, here becoming the center. Then the other objects each lend their specific acoustic character to the sounds they emit and those differences and relationships can be explored by going close to one or the other. So by moving through the space of the exhibition, or sitting still at different points, the listener can focus freely on various aspects of this complex sound field.