A hunter and gatherer of sound
Scott Smallwood traces his fascination with the possibilities of recorded sound way back to when his father gave him a cassette tape recorder. He was just 10 years old.
Now an associate professor of music at the University of Alberta, Scott Smallwood is an acute listener and sound explorer, drawing sounds from all kinds of places and objects into his experimental compositions and performances, Scott corresponded with me via email this week from a conference in Pittsburgh to answer a few questions about his sound art currently featured in SONAR, an exhibition curated by the Art Gallery of Alberta.
Q: How do you typically work with sound?
I usually refer to myself as a sound artist, which for me encompasses lots of different things: composing, performing, improvising, building sound installations.
The term “sound artist” does, however, have a particular meaning today, usually referring to artists who use sound in their work, but not necessarily in a “musical” way.
Either way, I do lots of different things, but they all stem from a practice of field recording and listening. I tend to “hunt and gather” sounds in my environment – at home, in my travels, and in places where I seek out certain kinds of sounds specifically. The work that emerges is usually informed by discovery and inspiration from the sounds I experience in my everyday experience.
Q: Tell me about your piece in SONAR.
My piece is called Hideout. This name was partially inspired by the first exhibition of the piece in Nashville, in a small intimate gallery space in an industrial building. It was also inspired by two particular soundscapes: the sound of my Edmonton apartment in winter as the hot-water baseboard heating system clicked and popped all round the apartment; and the sounds of clicking tree branches, birds, and insects in a little hidden copse of trees in the Whitemud ravine in sound Edmonton.
In both cases, I was struck by how these sounds become heightened when one is in a state of hiding. In addition, the sounds of the individual circuits were derived through a kind of improvisatory process of circuit design. Improvisation as a process is a very large part of my work in general, whether it is instrumental work, studio-based, or site-specific.
Q: How was creating a piece for a gallery different or similar to how you usually work with sound? What special considerations / parameters were put on this particular show?
I’ve been a performer and composer for as long as I can remember, whereas the gallery world is still a bit more recent in my life. I think my first installation piece was back in 1996, but over the past five years, I’ve been doing more and more of this kind of work.
Doing sound work in a gallery context is challenging, considering the fact that sound-work typically implies a time-element that is challenged in a gallery context, where someone might only spend a couple of minutes experiencing the work, so you have to make decisions about whether the piece has a shape, a start and ending.
Much of my recent work is designed to be generative and somewhat interactive, in the sense that the sounds are stasis, or perhaps in a state of constant change based on the specific parameters of the space.
Sound art has the obvious problem of bleed in a gallery context, which makes it challenging from a curation point of view. I think Kristy Trinier of the Art Gallery of Alberta, the curator for this show, did a good job negotiating this aspect.
For this show, the challenge was to realize that I only have so much control over the other sounds that may occur in the space, including the very loud air handling system in there!
Also, my piece is light depending, or “solarsonic” as I sometimes call it: it makes sounds directly in response to available light levels. So much of the challenge was getting the lighting right, and the distribution of the pieces along the wall.
Q: What sounds are you digging right now? What’s on your listening playlist?
Field recordings from Norway of ice, Infallibilism by Kelly Churko and Zbigniew Karkowski, Rumours by Fleetwood Mac, Tomorrow’s Harvest by Boards of Canada, Kontakte by Karlheinz Stockhausen, and the Puppetmastaz.
Experience Hideout as part of SONAR until December 20th.
Presented as part of the Art Gallery of Alberta at Enterprise Square Galleries exhibition series:
Exhibition title: SONAR
Exhibition dates: until December 20, 2014
Venue: Enterprise Square Galleries (10230 Jasper Avenue)
Gallery Hours: Thursday/Friday 12 – 6 p.m.
Saturday 12 – 4 p.m.
Admission: by donation