Interview with Tom White
By Mark Peter Wright.
Mark Peter Wright. Your compositions blend instrumentation with found sounds/tape collage and feedback amongst other sources. Where did this experimentation come from, I believe you have a visual arts background?
Tom White. I studied fine art, initially as a painter but soon tired of weeks producing work without satisfaction. Looking for something more instant, I started experimenting with film and video, adding my own soundtracks to short, poetic, lo-fi films. I think the technique of combining sounds with image and vice versa allowed me to sculpt a very introverted style through collage; thankfully they went hand in hand. In the second year of my course I lived in a house quite a way out of town (due to be demolished after we left). I could go off for weeks independently and experiment as much as I desired with video and sound; I don’t think I’ll ever get a chance to work that freely again. Even though it wasn’t a particularly long time ago, I truly believe that was the beginning of what I now do.
MPW. Are there any key artistic influences on your work, I’m thinking of the likes of William Burroughs’ cut up techniques and Alan Licht’s use of tape and instrumentation?
TW. Its interesting you mention both of those artists as they cover two area’s very important to me. Burroughs and many other experimental film makers working in that period are massively influential, not only to my moving image work but also how I approach sound. When I first discovered experimental film I’d never witnessed sound and image cut-up, manipulated and displayed in that way before. Around the same time I became interested in electronic/experimental music too, so it completely opened my mind. I was discovering people like Malcolm Le Grice, Paul Sharits, John Smith and Michael Snow, who of course is commonly associated with both areas.
MPW. What is it about such work and artists that impacted upon your own output?
TW. I was blown away by the fact work could be created from leftovers or with very little budget. For example Hollis Frampton’s film Palindrome is made entirely from binned film ends gathered whilst working at a photo lab. It’s the mistakes and imperfections in my work that I always try to magnify, maintain and repeat. I try to approach my idea’s as best as I can with what’s available to me. Just to briefly talk about Licht, he’s someone I discovered much later that’s made just as important an impact, especially since taking an interest in improvisation. For a multi-disciplinary artist, I think it’s important not to linger in a particular genre, style and so on, he proves it can be done exceptionally well by managing to cover noise, tape collage, improvisation, and elements of sound art practice into one record! (A New York Minute XI, 2003).
MPW. Licht also employs existing ethnographic, field recording samples in his work; do your compositions consist of any samples from pre existing records?
TW. I see what Licht does as re-appropriations or experiments in collage and minimalism, taking existing popular music or field recordings as the source. My work very rarely contains samples from other work, instead pre-existing sounds of my own that have been recorded to cassette during an improvisation for example. The original sound is often rendered unrecognisable and therefore takes on a new life instead of being in limbo or forgotten about. The recordings in some of Licht’s tape loop experiments inadvertently introduced me to the Smithsonian folkway archive. I can’t explain why I have such an emotional connection to these recordings, in particular the folk music studies of 1950’s South America. Maybe it’s due to the lack of direct comparisons that add a mysterious, almost alien edge to them that appeals to me so much. Either way I think they’ve seeped into my subconscious.
MPW. Clearly there is a theme of chance/improvisation to your working process. Your previous release, In Poor Visibility being based on a found visual image.
TW. The Idea of finding that image, at that time seemed to lend itself very well to the process of my work. I found it in a second hand shop in Hastings and instantly liked its atmosphere. Performing without an audience you can improvise almost infinitely and something will materialise unexpectedly, then of course it’s a case of developing that further to create something cohesive. With that image in mind I thought of trying to loosely marry the two for the purpose of the work, without being constrained to themes i.e. snow, or winter in relation to the image – as most of the tracks were conceived in the summer!
MPW. And how does chance and improvisation filter into your experience of performance or recording?
TW. I always need to be surprised by occurrences while working, if I don’t I tend to get frustrated and too concerned with repeating myself. So when it happens it’s almost a revelation, that’s when I decide to take things further, for example ‘On Sundays’ began as two improvisations that I made within the space of half an hour, similar in mood and length. The two separate pieces sounded more complete together; there was no need for any extra sounds to be layered. When I play live I try and expand this improvisation by creating more layers and intensity aiming towards an immersive sound. Playing live you have to expect mistakes, and to be honest it can go either way which brings us back to the notion of chance.
MPW. Your tracks tend to be very concise in terms of duration, is this something your aware of when composing?
TW. I never have a length in mind, I just improvise for as long as I like, usually between 15 and 30 minutes before my computer gives up and then I’ll later edit sections from that latter. The end result could be anything from 30 seconds to 15 minutes.
MPW. Presumably for this new release you had to consider track length due to the format of cassette?
TW. When I was making the two ten minute sides of the cassette It made me think more about format, side A and B as opposed to a collection of tracks that the listener may decide to shuffle around on itunes.
MPW. Did you find it difficult to improvise within specific time constraints?
TW. It was more of an exercise in editing as opposed to improvisation. The original edits were quite free and ended up being well over 10 minutes each, then of course it was a case of going back over the elements trying not to be precious – working visually, particularly with video has taught me how important this is.
MPW. There’s a definite sense of presence in your works, in that you can hear the physical processes at work, the pressing of the play button on a Dictaphone for instance. Is this analogue sense of tangibility important to you?
TW. Yes, not so much in terms of analogue – I’m definitely not a purist for all things analogue. For me there is no escaping the digital world and way of working, to be honest I fully embrace it. I certainly have a sound in mind when I’m working. A visceral physicality is what I look for in art, an element in sound or images that has an emotional presence; this is always a beginning point for my own practice. Using analogue and digital suits me very well, there are characteristics in both I couldn’t work the way I do without both – mostly due to aesthetics of tape and the temperamental nature of dictaphones and casio’s. To be able to format the work digitally obviously wouldn’t be possible without a computer. I enjoy having the option of both. Going to back to this process of pushing buttons on a Dictaphone – feedback is something that features heavily in my work whether its later sampled through casio keyboards or re-recorded. The moment I worked out you can create feedback by pushing record and play near a speaker was a mini epiphany for me! It’s your equipment reacting to the decisions you make, whether you’re ready for it or not.
MPW. So a cassette release on MDTS seems like a natural output for your work.
TW. Aesthetically it would seem cassette is a natural output due to the use of tape formats used in creating the work. I’ve always had an interest from an early age in the mechanics of recording sound to tape, so I guess you could say I’m giving something back to the format!
MPW. The release is titled False Ponds – it’s a very beautiful and elusive title, where did it come from?
TW. I was reading an article of an artist I’m very fond of, Tacita Dean, this term ‘False Ponds’ jumped out at me. It means mirage. It seemed to fit nicely into work I was doing for the MDTS release, almost as homage to her work in sound rather than my interpretation of a mirage sonically. I’ve tried to research this term online since and found next to nothing, I think the elusiveness of a term to describe an illusion appealed to me even more.
MPW. What were the initial influences for the record?
TW. I initially started to explore an interest I’ve had at the back of my mind for a while, how do you translate the feeling of claustrophobia or create a feeling of claustrophobia through sound? Claustrophobia is easy to illustrate visually, as most people will refer to the fear small places. It has interested me for a long time as my father suffers from it, not severely but he’d never go pot holing to say the least. My work is usually described as having a lot of space, mainly by filmmakers intriguingly, so I was keen to experiment with narrowing my sound, and going back to improvisation – to be constrained by rules. As the project took on a different direction its an idea I am continuing to work on, perhaps as an installation.
MPW. Finally, what’s coming up in the future?
TW. At the moment I’m working on two Audio/visual collaborations; a video installation with Filmmaker/Animator Ian Emes called ‘Beautiful Lies’ and sound for a multi-media project called ‘Model Soldiers’ by artist Tania Diniz. As well my own recorded output, I’m also working on a few solo installation projects and residencies that I hope will see the light of day before the end of the year.
Photos by District Fuhi.