DANIEL NEUMANN

Interviewer: Guy Harries

Date of interview: 3 June 2013

Location: EyeBeam Gallery, Manhattan, New York

Website: http://danielneumann.org

Q: In your work and on your website you talk about fragility. How does that manifest in your performance?

A: In my performance it’s mostly that I like to use damaged equipment or samples from damaged equipment. To me, there’s a quality in reaching a fragile state because then that makes it a unique moment also within my equipment. So I use broken speaker drivers that are flapping, rattling, and then the more you rattle them at some point they will just fall apart and then it’s done, you will never have that very particular sound again.

Q: Is there a life cycle of the equipment? Does it become like a living being somehow because there’s the option of ‘death’?

A: It’s basically witnessing the death of the object, if an object has a life, but with speakers they somehow feel alive because they speak, so I like using that. And then also in terms of just the volume or the gesture of sound, I personally like to create spaces where people have to focus and not get blasted by a wall of sound or by this constant stream of overstimulation. For me, that’s also a tactic against this whole entertainment culture, that executes big power through big sound systems. Even though professionally I work for exactly that to make the spectacle happen.

Q: Whereabouts?

A: I work as a sound engineer for big clubs…in live sound mostly, where it’s all about big power (laughs). So then for my own work I feel like I like to undermine and just deliver a performance that doesn’t give you all the answers. That to me is important: to not make it as easy as entertainment culture. For me there’s a difference, and I think the difference is important, and I know that’s maybe a historical approach, but to me it’s relevant.

Q: In what sense?

A: Because I feel like the division between high culture and low culture used to be more present and then this was kind of overcome since the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s and late ‘90s where you have all these mixes between club culture and high art, and art events becoming mass entertainment spectacles more and more, and so to me that development makes it necessary to create events that are not spectacles.

Q: And where would you place that in high and low art? Or do you not need to?

A: That’s a good question. I guess it’s more placed in high art just from background.

Q: And the levels of bombardment maybe?

A: Right, even though some high art stuff is just a bombardment. It uses the same strategies, the same marketing, the same experience of immersion.

Q: But I’d say what’s happening downstairs [at EyeBeam gallery - the preparation for the performance evening that Neumann organised on the day of the interview] is immersion. It’s a different type of immersion but it is immersion in a certain sense.

A: That you’re in a space?

Q: Yeah, it defines the space somehow, or it connects with a space and immerses the audience. I mean this space in particular that you’re working with.

A: I guess I have to define my criticism of immersion a little better. I think there’s a difference in this technical show of big video projections and 8 channel sound, and then you create this entertainment, but I'm more interested in creating a situation: (a) for focused listening but (b) also where it’s highly clear as audience where your place is. Like when you walk in already the doors are closed, the entrance space is not cleaned up, it’s this after-hour feel. You’re going somewhere where the space is not open at its regular hours with its regular façade. You kind of enter through the back door and then you open up a new scene where people need to grab a chair if they want to sit. It’s not just all laid out, all just there, and those kinds of moments for me are important.

And also I’m sometimes sloppy with making announcements and explaining everything. Also, to create the same atmosphere of letting people discover something and sometimes letting people not understand what’s going on and having people leave. But to me it’s more important to create a situation where it’s this moment of ‘OK, what’s going on?’ as a factor. And for my own practice I usually try to create a situation where I can start my performance while the audience still thinks it’s intermission or soundcheck or I’m trying out something.

In May [2013] I performed at Spectrum, a small performance space in the Lower East Side. I started already but I was still walking around adjusting amplifiers that I had spread out in the space, and then Glen, who runs the venue, just comes in and talks to me and says ‘Daniel, here look at this guitar’ (laughs)

Q: And did you respond?

A: I think I responded briefly like not really engaging in the conversation but I was definitely amused that even he wouldn’t know if I had started or not.

Q: So it seems like you’re blurring boundaries of: when have you entered the space and when have you entered the performance situation and when has it actually started and where is this this place?

A: And what was intentional and what was not. With events I like to work at that. I had an event series at Santos Party House called ‘Santos Is Closed’ and so that was an unofficial event in a nightclub. And there, as some kind of signature, we always had a big taller ladder out in the space, so that it’s also this question of ‘OK, somebody left the ladder out’ and then the next time ‘Oh yeah there’s this ladder, I think I might remember’ but then it’s this ‘OK was it intentional or not?’

Q: And defining yourself as a performer, do you blur that as well, performer or non-performer?

A: I like to sit at the front of house, if there’s that division of front of house / mixing board / working area / stage/ clean performance area. Which is in a way, I think, part of the acousmatic tradition where there’s no performer, where the speakers basically are the performers.

Q: And the speakers are on stage when you perform like that, or all around you?

A: Around. I did this in the last two performances. I found guitar amplifiers in the space. One was a rehearsal space and the other had 6 amplifiers and so I was only using the amplifiers, really spreading them out, 6 channels, and then working with that environment; and then each amplifier also has a certain character and so certain sounds get a certain location and character. When possible I like to be off-centre.

Q: And does the audience realise that you’re performing in that situation?

A: Most of the time, yeah.

Q: And the agency and causality of your playing - do they make that connection?

A: That’s obvious, yeah totally.

Q: Because it's gestural, or how?

A: No. It becomes clear what’s going on is meant to happen in the moment or is meant to be a performance or is meant to take this performance slot time and allow people to get taken away or focus on something. And most people say after my performance it took them to some strange new space in their head. And yeah that’s kind of what I’m working towards…to create a new headspace.

Q: And when you play with other musicians, when you collaborate, is that more of a performative situation?

A: Not really, no. In the past when I did collaboration it was inspired by this idea of a non-hierarchical organisation that is also spread out in one space or over two spaces and we used to call it ‘modular collaboration’ because there’s this way of organising a structure that is non-hierarchical with no centre point and where you interconnect different modules into a network of things. And so it usually has elements of one person passing sound to another person either through wire or through a speaker and microphone and then this other person working with that and passing it somewhere else, creating these more complex structures and environments. That’s what I do when I collaborate with people, to also create an open situation that allows unexpected things to happen, and it’s not repeatable as such.

Q: And is it performance of a composition? Are there certain things that happen within that modular organisation or is it just the idea of passing sound?

A: I think the idea of a sonic exchange, that’s the main idea, and then it’s modular in the sense that one person can use their material also for a different performance in a slightly different setting. One person can be missing but still participating through older recording or new material made from older recordings. That’s how I understand this modular form. And it has nothing to do with modular synthesizers, necessarily. I mean, it’s not based on the technology. It’s based more on how we interact with each other, how we create this collaboration, what type of collaboration is it? And in a way, every collaboration may have elements of that but to me it’s important and interesting to focus on.


Q: And is there a connection between installation and live work?

A: For me performance and installation is also kind of blurry and I like that it is blurry and for some of these modular collaborations, they went on for six hours or one was three days.

Q: And the performers were there the whole time?

A: Performers were pretty much here at all times but it was definitely like a live alteration of the material constantly, and then since you’re passing things around it changes the entire thing all the time.

Q: Three days around the clock?

A: Oh no, the space was open from noon until six, and so it was three days for six hours. And yes, with those projects you kind of work in between what’s considered an installation or what’s considered a performance. And for me it’s more interesting to think about it in this way when I set up a concert - to think about it as an installation, actually setting up a temporary installation. I think that’s also true for my performance work:  to put certain speakers up, not necessarily using the PA system. I sometimes bring four or five little speakers and then I only perform through those.

Q: And do you find that because of this approach your performances need to be longer? Because you’re creating a situation that needs to be experienced, maybe not over five minutes but it needs to be explored and therefore needs a longer time?

A: It needs longer than five minutes. My own solo performances can fit into 20-25 minutes. Then I just explore one thing. If I have more time then I think things tend to be more complex; if I have less time then I try and just explore one certain aspect or one certain material through one process with an element of unfolding or crashing, some element of disruption.

Q: Could you expand on the disruption element?

A: Mmmm…to not just provide a nice drone for example. I think, in electronic instruments the element of drone is kind of inherent, kind of in there already, and so to me I think it’s more important to go against that. For me it is more interesting to create some certain unexpected disruptions and that to me is because the machinery just invites people to do these droney static things. They’re interesting and they have their place, but with electronic instruments there’s this danger, especially now everything is so accessible and user friendly, that the element of surprise is lost because you choose from presets that are already made and that sound right or certain plugins that would turn everything into a drone, no matter what you feed into them. So it’s also about challenging myself to not allow me to get ‘droned away’, for me to keep a certain focus, and then sometimes that means to not be sure what kind of material will come in. You bring it in and see what happens. Or to just to turn something off, to really respond by saying ‘Ok I don’t like this now anymore, I’m going to turn it off.'

Q: I consider live electronics as a performance practice where all the elements - the space, the body, the staging, the audience…

A: That’s pretty much exactly what I’m thinking about because here  [EyeBeam gallery] this is such a bare, open space that every time I can have a different set up, and for me it’s also important how the entrance works. And for tonight’s concert, the plan with the chairs is to just have stack of chairs over there and a little bit of social area near the bar, but then if the audience wants to sit in the sound field, in the concert area, then they have to take a chair and place it there themselves.

Q: So the sound of grabbing a chair becomes part of the performance as well?

A: Could be, but I think most of the moving will happen before the actual piece. It’s more about for me to not dictate. So then it’s just to break open this traditional concert situation. And part of it for me is to have this traditional concert at 10pm in Chelsea on Monday night because all the galleries are closed, nothing is happening, it’s really a deserted, strange area at night, during the week and I like to use that.

Q: And what kind of crowd comes in on a Monday night?

A: Most them are like experimental music, like the sound art scene. It’s a fairly obvious scene where everybody pretty much knows each other. I’m always happy if I see different faces, not all the same people. I’m always happy to have at least one touring act to make it special. And then also in this space to create this unique listening situation where people feel like, ‘Oh yeah, I wanna go there on a Monday night.’

For me, setting up this event here I consider part of my practice. For me, where to put the bar and how to design the flow of people, which entrance to use and what situation to create for the entrance - those are all creative choices. But it’s also usually a question of the space layout. In regular concert venues, the mixing board is in one place and the stage box is in another place on the stage, so you can either only set up on the stage or maybe, if the sound guy is friendly, then you can set up next to the mixing board but then those are the only choices you have usually. That’s what I love about this situation, I only do it in between exhibitions [at EyeBeam] when there’s no installation in the space, and so the openness of the space allows me to really think about it. And then I always find some light situation that is left over which sometimes is great…Last time there was a video show up and there was a big video piece that needed protection so I decided to put the bar in front of the video piece and it worked out great. It was also an interactive piece that was responding to the movement. Any time the bar tender would grab a can of beer, the piece behind him responded…