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‘Cipher’ by C.A.N.V.A.S., on the meaning of code

Interview by Allan Gardner

C.A.N.V.A.S. is a platform and label that aims to bring an increasingly dispersed group of electronic artists together in order to release records, foster dialogue and produce events which reflect the diversity and creativity of those working within it. Beginning in London in 2014 as a series of events, founders Olan Monk and Lugh launched the label in 2018, releasing their own work to establish a statement of intent before opening the platform up to other voices.

Cipher, a compilation released through the platform at the end of February, functions as the bringing together of artists spread between London and Berlin, including; Michael Speers, Xao, object blue, Ashley Paul, Ben Vince, Ausschuss, Olan Monk, Flora Yin-Wong and Lugh. It comprises all original works put together under a specific brief produced by Lugh in which each artist was tasked with responding specific thematic instructions in order to produce a contextually coherent body of work that still allowed for each contributor to produce freely.

Cipher, if considered in the context of it being a single work with the artists functioning as contributors, is an engaging prospect. Lugh’s tasks reject the notion of a pre-defined process, often involving reflection, collaboration and reconsideration of the visual structures pertaining to the production of music. The overarching themes of the collective release centre around human/non-human authorship, the graphic score as a means of codification and the means of propagating music.

‘Codification’ is a word which seems to appear within their statement of intent with some regularities, particularly relevant in that Lugh’s tasks given to the contributors all involve a critical approach to their own production. They necessitate reconsideration of the structures which relate to the creation of audio works and particularly the inferable rules or prescriptions of production, leading to a hegemony of authorship.

The mission statement of Cipher was distilled into three tasks, one of which contributors responded to. The first of which was to consider the Ryōan-ji, Kare-sansui garden as a visual score, responding to its appearance, arrangement and texture through sonic or musical parameters. The second task considered the contributor’s structuring of music as a visual language present within the mind – enquiring as to the possibility or impossibility of channelling speculative images or thoughts into sound. The third task utilises the assumption that an audio recording or score shares the purpose of instructing for the interpretation, execution and propagation of sound. For those producing contributions under this brief, fragments of audio were exchanged between the artists as a structural entity to interpret and realise as a musical form.

Cipher exists as a compelling record of reappraisal and exchange between artists & producers who see a necessity in the destabilisation of hegemonic authorship. The record appears to have utilised a brief, or structure, in favour of garnering responses to more broad concerns within the production of contemporary experimental music – primarily maintaining an element of critical thinking and analysis of the genesis of audio works.

There will be a live performance featuring Michael Speers & Flora Yin Wong, Ben Vince & Jacob Samuel, Ashley Paul & Olan Monk and Lugh as a means of launching the compilation at London’s Café Oto on the 13th of March 2019. The structure of this evening of performance speaks further to Cipher’s desire to reconsider authorship and interpretation through the collaborative relationships of the performers in a live setting.


Lugh, for our audience not that familiar with your work, could you tell us a bit more about it and how it relates to the concept developed for Cipher?

Lugh: A lot of my work deals with information in various forms, looking at it in a sort of archaeological way, finding its origins and tracing its trajectory to understand better the emergence of current patterns in the propagation of content and meaning through symbols and various proxies.

The concept developed for Cipher, for example, takes into consideration methods by which musical information has been recorded and communicated, of which there are many. Classical music notation, a prominent and standardised norm for the transcription of musical information in Western music, has very distinct characteristics, parameters and limitations.

What becomes interesting when you assess the classical music score as a medium for information is that the scope and limitations of the standardised codes used to denote a piece of music dictate the spectrum of possible available musical outcomes. They have their own agency, and they act upon a creative process, imposing their own voice or sound.

That is one defining characteristic of this method for encoding information, which is ancestral to many new practices and inventions in music. It is interesting, in that light, to spot those same patterns or new developments in other uses of information in music, such as digital formatting or sonification. Or else to imagine their potential development in speculative examples of where the use of information in music making might go next.

Cipher considers the hegemony of authorship in the context of codification of music are you implying digital music is seen as something less valued, or is this related to the advent of machine-produced music?

Lugh: Not directly. This sentence invites participants to think about what role the codification of music plays in the authorship of music. This is as relevant a reflection of digital music as it is for past and ancestral standards for notating music.

As discussed above, the classical music score, music theory and standardisations which came from it allow a composer to create music within defined boundaries. Digital recording and formatting truncates fragments of real sound in order to be able to store the sound, which is considered more important and efficient. Digital tools allow you to alter those recordings, but again within certain parameters which are set in code. Each tool is designed and has boundaries and limitations.

In this regard, each of the methods for notating and recording music restricts ‘human authorship’ to a degree. At the same time many traditions in music suppose that the composer is the absolute creator of her or his music, and that the tools used are purely at the service of the composer.

In that context, the project invited people to consider what relation or what conflict exists between the role played by authorship and the role played by codification in various aspects of musical practice.

You are also the producer of a track in Part 2, a part that relates to how visual images and composition relate to the mind. Could you tell us about the intellectual process behind it?

Lugh: The second task of the project considers whether or not we make music in the image of how it is conceived in our thoughts. In light of the previous answer, This task is about evaluating how much of the music, as imagined in our human thoughts we actually transform into music.  If one does imagine music in thoughts, is it even possible to turn that into music outside of one’s thoughts?

My track ‘Hot Mess’ responds to it by considering the possibility of making our thoughts ‘readable’ so that they can be accessed and transcribed – decipherable. If our thoughts can be read and written, then we could potentially create a standard for music notation which could record and communicate our pure unadulterated musical thinking. This is a totally speculative scenario.

The hot mess is our immaculate pure thinking. The track conveys thoughts undergoing a meditative process to achieve a decipherable state. This speculative conception of a future of transcription and propagation of music involves producing form from thoughts through deep introspection.

In times when almost everything is consumed via screens and headphones. How do you deal with screen/digital overload?

Lugh: I have always been fascinated by the incessantly re-generating and rapidly expanding context of screen culture, despite the mental and physical harm of overexposure. But I do feel that screen culture seems to become quite self-referential, and in that way, it tends to exhaust itself – bringing in fresh ideas is necessary.

Flora & Ben, how do you personally relate to the concept proposed for Cipher?

Flora: I think the task I was given by Lugh/Olan relates closely to my work and personal interests in elements of Japanese Buddhist philosophies and culture so it was a nice project to take part in.

Ben: I was interested in the concept of using graphics stimuli for a sonic composition – over time, more and more, I have been contemplating sound as sculpture and physical structures as music, and this project I feel, provokes thought on sonic and physical properties and the intersections therein. Particularly with collective improvisation, I have felt the presence of a temporal, psychic physical structure, which is ever-changing and being re-constituted in different ways by different forces. Whilst I find it particularly difficult to describe visual phenomena with words, responding and reacting to imagined and physical spaces comes to me naturally.

Your track inscribes in Part 1, where a task revolving around the old tradition of Japanese garden sound design using natural elements was comissioned. Many Western musicians and artists, and writers have been fascinated by it (John Cage composed Ryoanji, a musical translation of the famous Karesansui garden in Kyoto). What was the intellectual process behind your composition?

Flora: My intention was to portray a mood and environment that related to the concept, especially focusing on natural elements like wind, water, and ground/rock. I had just come back from a 2-month trip across Japan (with Michael Speers also on the compilation), where I had recorded essentially the wind and the ground in a mountain surrounded by the sea.

Ben: I wasn’t interested in seeing how others would interpret it: in the Zen spirit, one’s own journey leads to truth, and this remained my methodology in translating the garden into a sonic sculpture. I wanted to leave a lot up to my imagination rather than try and re-create the physical properties in a linear way.

What elements of the garden or the garden composition did you assimilate or recreate with your musical tools?

Flora: I didn’t use a technical interpretation of the garden structure for the piece. Rather it was sonic and conceptual references like the water sound from hands clapping, and the recording of the tsurigane bells to cleanse the energy in the air, referencing the typical use of these bells in Japan.

Ben: For my track, I made a recording template whereby the Zen garden was represented by grouping motifs. I created a group for each group of stones, and within those groups, the number of stones is each represented by a motif I recorded. I then did a live take with the loops, imagining being a particle floating through the Zen garden. Using the graphic position of the stones, I used the loops from each group as triggers for when I encountered a particular stone or set of stones. There are some sharp transitions in the track when I imagined turning corners and new objects coming in and out of view.

In times when almost everything is consumed via screens and headphones. How do you deal with screen/digital overload?

Flora: I can’t.

Ben: Well, for starters, I’ve never used a smartphone as my main phone, mainly because I think they’re designed to remove people’s attention or focus away from the physical realm into a self-centred, virtual one in which behaviours can be externally observed and manipulated. I already spend a lot of time indoors and on the computer due to my respective jobs, and sometimes feel the mental pressure and restlessness of not interacting with or enjoying the physical world enough.

In London, it’s easy to feel undernourished in this regard, especially when rush hour on the tube consists of often hostile, headphoned droids, atomised and defensive, but forced to share physical space en route to the day’s assignments. I think it’s important to consider one’s relationship to technology and notice when it is interfering with your health and spirituality.

Western society couldn’t be further from the tranquillity of the Zen garden and the practices of Buddha, almost existing in total antithesis, which is another reason I thought the Cipher project was cool. Machines and advances in technology can be useful to us for sure, but too often, I see creative projects grappling with a new technology or style that seems to neglect the human element or agent, which makes it really difficult to relate to.

Basically, I’d say take the digital world with a pinch of salt and try to positively engage with your physical environment more, making an effort to communicate with people in person and generally get out more. Technology should work for us, not the other way round.

(Media courtesy of the artists)
On Key

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