Jez Riley French
Jez Riley French is a UK based artist whose work focuses on the exploration of detail via intuitive composition, extended field recording techniques and photography. Elements such as sonic architecture, audible silence and compositional arcs have evolved from French's need to remain open to an emotive, intuitive response to situations and environments. For comprehensive info on Jez please visit jezrileyfrench.blogspot.com.
Ear Room (ER). Can you start by telling us about some of the central motivations/themes that run through your work?
Jez Riley French (JrF). My motivations are simple; an enjoyment of exploring details and finding ways in which to be creative whilst remaining somewhat private. I suppose the easiest way to convey what motivates me is to say that my ‘work’ is a part of my life and as such is influenced, and triggered by the same things as everything else in my life to some degree. I probably cook with some of the same motivations as when I set off with my recorder for example. As to the question of themes, well my hope is that throughout my work I am able to convey something with emotive qualities. In specific terms then there are certain approaches that I often use; hydrophone recordings, audible silence works, intuitive composition, photographic scoring etc. Detail is a central theme, detail and a simple joy of exploration. I don’t see that there is always a separation between me as a person and my artistic work. In fact I’d go further, and say that I actively don’t believe in that division and take the view that the most important thing is to live well (emotionally) and to be creative in general. I also happen to feel that it’s important to make things happen – for ones self and for others. So I guess that must be the big theme behind my work but I don’t believe it is necessary to make it a central overt aspect of the work itself.
ER. Can you talk about your relationship to Space/architecture and how it came about?
JrF. I like spaces; I like sitting quietly listening to spaces. I like the way different spaces have very different qualities. This is something that is part of me, the person (not just the ‘artist’) and so my choices to record spaces or work with them and what draws me to find them is quite simple to understand. I’m not that comfortable discussing any internal thought processes that might exist as a result of having spent time exploring in this way and that is partly because I feel there is often too much emphasis on the language that surrounds art. However what I will say is that there are, for example, links between this element of my work and simple aspects of my childhood: I was a choir boy and this instilled in me an interest in the sound of church spaces (including how choral music was often written for the specific acoustics of certain buildings) and sound jars (glass jars placed in the walls of early churches in order to assist the natural acoustics of the structure). The biggest influence however is undoubtedly to do with an appreciation for the safe, comforting and inspiring spaces of home that was provided for me by my mother, and that has become an essential aspect of my personality too. This is a rather complex area to discuss, but I think it is such an essential aspect of life and sadly one that is often ignored these days. I suspect there are a great many people who don’t get what quiet and stillness in a safe, regular environment has to offer children and what it can inspire in them.
ER. Having worked so extensively with space can you elaborate more on these notions of 'silence' and 'quiet', practically or conceptually?
JrF. Of course total ‘silence’ doesn’t exist per say. It is in actual fact a word defined by an emotional or sensory perception. Even in cases of, for example, digitally produced total silence (absence of any sound) it can never be heard (!) as such because we are not silent ourselves, nor do we occupy silent spaces. I would say that words such as quietude and stillness actually fit much better with reality. Having said that, using the word silence in a compositional setting is fitting at times. It can be used in order to signify that a duration within said work features a sonic element that is to be considered an equal part of the piece as a whole, whereas ‘stillness’ could be perceived as something that exists around the piece but not in it. In that way ‘silence’ is actually the name of a sound, a musical or sonic element. The definition is still rather prosaic. In terms of being in architectural structures / spaces then ironically I think of silence as those moments when all that can be heard (in relative terms at least) is the space itself. It actually is a contradiction in terms anyway. It is possible to view the values applied to this one word as a metaphor for many of the problems I’ve already alluded to. Here is a word, a concept that many artists and scholars will tell you is defined in certain ways, however the vast majority of people have a very different idea of what the words signifies – which is most often a personal response to a place or a situation.
ER. What is Audible Silence?
JrF. As I’ve already mentioned my work has always been focused on my passion for detail and stillness. I’ve been recording the sound of ‘empty’ spaces / environments, the inaudible-to-the-naked ear sounds of objects & surfaces for many years now and the term ‘audible silence’ is one that I believe captures aspects of these approaches. For me it’s a phrase that implies the emotive aspects of stillness that are present in perceived silences, therefore allowing me to convey something of the intention behind these explorations; stopping, listening, finding pleasure and creative inspiration from the fascinating sounds that we can find in our daily lives. There is also an aspect of celebration of the architectural spaces we inhabit, a wish to understand that they are more than just physical structures.
ER. How do you go about balancing the subjective and objective ear in recording a place of personal significance?
JrF. For me, it is an essential aspect of what I do that it is enjoyable and so I simply record what I like. Sometimes it is also important to not record but to just enjoy the sounds as they are. I only press ‘record’ when it feels right. I suspect there are a large number of people involved with field recording/ sound gathering who actively go out hunting for sounds and then attempt to capture them as precisely as possible. This isn’t how I work. For me it is about capturing moments and mostly even when the sounds are presented in a relatively abstracted manner there is a personal memory behind the circumstances in which they were recorded. In this respect I don’t think of the things I capture as just ‘sounds’ – they are about the actions of listening, of approaching quietude and of being in that place at that time. Perhaps later on I can think more about the sounds in different contexts, but again this is personal, and informed by all the things my life contains.
Therefore, if I have to give a full answer to this question it’s that I’m not aware fully of how or if I balance those things at specific times. Intuition plays a very large part in my choices, and its best not to examine ones intuition too much!
ER. That's a very good point! But it does bring us onto intuitive composition, can you talk about this term and its place in your work.
JrF. I began using the term ‘intuitive composition’ many years ago because I didn’t feel ‘improvisation’ totally fitted what I do. In performance I still begin without a fully mapped structure but there is a level of focus and openness in allowing a piece to develop its own momentum and compositional arc. I use intuition throughout all aspects of my work – live, recorded for release or exhibited and so ‘intuitive composition’ just seems to fit.
ER. How important is research in your practice and how do you view the academic/research-based element of sound art and critical theory?
JrF. If by ‘research’ you mean only the academic then in a public sense I don’t think it is important very much at all – it shouldn’t be. I am aware that some might believe this implies a lack of focus but that is not the case with my work at all. I think though, there is an issue with the academic approach being recognized much more than an intuitive response. Both are informed and both are (in cases of any worth at all – personal or otherwise) the result of a great deal of ‘learning’. I am unsure what to make of this aspect in relation to sound art to be honest (just as with most art forms). By and large much of it actually seems to remove the artist and the listener from the work to some degree, but there is a prevailing belief that it should bring us closer to the work. In this respect ‘art’ has moved forward in academic terms but not so much in more human, emotive ones. It is not important to write a thesis on abstract theories of interconnection between individual humans before one holds someone’s hand for example, and whilst research might be personally important for an artist I think the emphasis on it has become way too important, to the point where the analytical connection needed has become an overriding influence on the art world in general. To some degree I feel the individuality of artists has become submerged behind things which are not that individual. I am not that interested in the artist behind the work if that is all they have to offer or have been taught or conditioned to offer. I think it might also be the reason why so many ‘artists’ are very clued up on their art-speak & able to talk the hind legs of the proverbial donkey about the research their work evolves from, but at the same time are somewhat bland, messed up or extremely mainstream on the emotional side of things. I think there are also issues to do with ego at play and at attempts to quantify or define. Personally I believe that it is possible, and acceptable, to research ones interests privately. It’s also the case that a lot of the theory discussed out there is actually less to do with the work itself than with things like access to funding, gaining qualifications or opportunities for work to be shown / performed.
At the root of this, in relation to sound, is the ignorance that most curators and artists from other forms have about music and sound. The majority of visual artists I meet have really blinkered and commercial tastes in music and no interest in experimental sound / music. It’s very strange that they are often very open to abstract visual concepts but do not regard music / sound as being on the same artistic level or approach it with the same explorative outlook. In this regard I feel the term ‘sound art’ sometimes adds to the problem by allowing the ‘art world’ to bypass the infinitely more beneficial bridge reuniting music-art with the other arts that the term could have been.
I find most artists working with sound tend to have quite a reasonable interest in, and knowledge of the visual arts. This imbalance I think has backfired, and many sound artists seem now, forced to discuss and research their work on the same terms as with all other art forms. Indeed, for most, they never even think about not doing that – it is instilled in them especially if they study formally.
ER. At what stage in you career did you become aware of sound and its potential to impact beyond a traditional musical incarnation?
JrF. It used to be the case that it was simply part of life (when one had a parent who genuinely cared for the emotional growth of their child, as I was lucky enough to have had) to listen, and to understand what could be taken from the sounds we hear. So I grew up with my ears open.
I know the various theoretical distinctions between ‘sound’ and ‘music’ but I’m not comfortable at all with the way these have been applied. It seems to have been forgotten that, for example, composers are artists who work with sound – they are sound artists! In that sense the term was, shall we say, appropriated by the visual art world with little regard for the work already done by others.
ER. You have a very diverse output covering areas of instrument builder, lecturer, and curator, to name but a few. How do you balance these aspects?
JrF. At the risk of repeating myself, I simply live. Each aspect of my activities has become a natural impulse – in some cases it was there from an early age and in others it has grown out of my engagement with various aspects of my practice. So for example I began to curate events simply because I wanted to bring artists whose work I respected to the area in which I live. I think whilst one is genuinely creatively driven and wants to help other artists as well as advance one’s own work then it’s generally an essential part of the whole to do more than just create work.
ER. How do you make ends meet as a full time artist?
JrF. Without going into personal financial details let me say that apart from commissions, performance fees, guest lecturer engagements and sales of releases / publications, I think it’s important to be active, to make things happen – this might cost oneself, especially in terms of time, but it greatly enriches ones experience and understanding – which, in turn means that one is better able to access paid or funded opportunities. If, like me, you have your feet in the areas between what is most commonly regarded as ‘sound art’ and ‘music’ then it is, by and large a supportive and friendly world, so arranging performances or tours for other artists whose work you respect usually means they will do the same for you at some point. One more thing: I don’t smoke and I don’t drink – for me it’s a really important point to state that being ‘creative’ isn’t just about making art – it’s about the choices we make in our daily lives.
ER. And finally as always ear room asks, what does the term ‘Sound Art’ mean to you?
JrF. The term ‘sound art’ is one that has mostly been applied to my work by other people. I rarely use it simply because it actually means something increasingly specific these days. Perhaps not in terms of the actual work presented but rather in the processes and various other aspects that are expected by some. The foundations of explorations with sound are often ignored, rejected and theoretically dismissed. If or when I use it I mean an artist who works with sounds and for me that means musicians, composers, artists etc. Simple.
This article is jointly published on 01.11.10 on Mark Peter Wright's Ear Room website