LUCIA H CHUNG INTERVIEWED. NEGATIVE SPACE: EN CREUX
Emerging last year as the latest project of Taiwanese sound artist Lucia H Chung, en creux challenged us to reconsider the boundaries of minimal production. Her debut release, the mesmeric ‘Default 0003′ for SM-LL took the label’s manifesto of exploring repetition to the very limit, ticking static, modem bleeps and eery soundscapes.
With her latest contribution to the imprint – ‘Default 0006′ having recently been made available, we caught up with Chung to discuss performance space, the problems with translation and the origins of the en creux project.
So first off how are things? You’ve just jetted off to Taiwan I believe – what are your plans while you’re over?
Things are going ok! I recently had my second release on SM-LL, and I’m now thinking about the next project, although early days yet. Yes I am in Taiwan at the moment – back to see friends and family. I normally pop back twice a year if I can, although it can be quite a challenge as it’s a very different atmosphere here. The weather for sure is one of the huge difference between Taiwan and the UK. The food as well, it’s a very different mixture of flavours, spicier, sweeter, sourer… all the senses are exploding and intensified, which I very much enjoy.
The general soundscape in the city is muddier and denser and you can almost feel the humidity and the heat of sub-tropical weather in all the sounds. I sometimes feel split between these two worlds, but people say this comes out in my work, so I guess that’s good.
The en creux project was something you started on SM-LL exploring the idea of negative space – a term taken from a book by Michel Chion. Can you tell us a little bit more about your original inspiration for the project, and what you mean by ‘negative space’?
Wow, this will probably take me a whole day to explain. I will try my best to make it short for you (laughs). The notion of en creux came through at the end of my research project in the music department at Goldsmiths, University of London. I was in the thick of the thesis writing, and had been grappling with my ideas without a specific term to describe or narrow them down. I was writing about Rachel Whiteread’s 1990 sculpture Ghost and comparing it with Alvin Lucier’s famous 1969 piece I am sitting in a room as I saw an interesting parallel between the materialisation of Lucier’s voice in the space through audio recording and the reversed casting process in Whiteread’s Ghost. The end result of both pieces is derived from the ‘casting’ process of the ‘negative’ of space. Whiteread’s sculpture inverted the invisible part of a living space into a tangible and palpable object while Lucier’s recording articulated the resonant frequencies of the room, which in turn, moulded the ‘form’ of the final outcome.
I stumbled upon the term ‘en creux’ by pure accident – a very happy accident, if I may say. Michel Chion’s notion of en creux was intended to describe the phantom perceptual experience from one sensory channel to another, a transference of psychological presences and absences through sound on screen. What really interested me was the translator’s special note to the term. In the English translation of Chion’s Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, the term was translated as ‘phantom,’ yet the translator particularly pointed out that en creux in French ‘properly refers to negative space – the shape of the space in a sculptor’s mould, defined by the mould’. I found the semantic meaning of the phrase and the translation issue that arose fascinating and it encapsulated my research interests perfectly. So I took liberties to ‘lift’ the term and placed it in the context of my own practice to expand the notion to its broadest sense. So when Martin (owner of SM-LL) asked me if I would like to contribute to the label, I thought to use ‘en creux’ as some sort of guideline for the music writing process.
This latest release felt quite different to the first and much more affront in it’s approach – do you think this was down to the fact you used the MFB Kraftzwerg for the release? When did you get the synth and what’s the writing process like using it? What other hardware have you been using?
I bought the MFB Kraftzwerg about three or four years ago. In 2011, I got invited to do a solo performance at Jazz Servant Quarter in Dalston, for which I used a laptop and mixer feedback. That performance was quite a nerve wracking experience for me as there’s no way to ‘control’ feedback entirely. All I could do for preparation was to spend time understanding the ‘character’ of the particular mixer I was using, how to converse or argue with it, how to make it ‘tick’, if you like (laughs). I realised that I really enjoyed this kind of physical interaction that was not only connecting things and turning knobs, but also the very process of getting to know a machine and its sounds by putting all your attention on a very single, minute detail. So after that performance, I started to looks for a machine that would be self-contained, that would allow me to focus all my attention on one single thing. It was simply love at the first sight. I wanted it as soon as I saw its image on the internet, and managed to track one down second-hand.
I wouldn’t say there’s a particular ‘writing’ process with the recent en creux release that utilises Kraftzwerg. The structures of both tracks are straight recordings of me ‘playing’ with the synth, or rather, me ‘listening’ to it. I think the design of Kraftzwerg poses quite a bit of restriction as the board is pre-connected, very different from other modular synth, say the Roland System 100, which I have some experience with. There is, though, a pre-determined theme in both tracks. Noise, which is different from Default 0003 as it’s the result of my sitting with two Fostex TT-15 tone generators and an Akai S20 sampler. I won’t say it is more affront this time, I think it is just more focused. I think the aggressiveness of the sound is always there lurking in my music, for example in Colour of Quantum (2011), but Kraftzwerg definitely brings more punchiness to the sounds and lower frequencies to the overall spectrum.
I understand you have been doing a lot of live work in galleries – do you prefer the gallery space in general as a host for your music?
I think the connection to the gallery space comes from my roots in Fine Art. I obtained my first degree in Fine Art at the University of Education in Taiwan, which provided four years solid training for its students to become art teachers. I learnt basically everything there, classic pencil and charcoal drawings, watercolour and oil paintings, Chinese ink painting and Calligraphy, printmaking and sculpture. Into the second year of the uni, I very quickly found myself gravitating towards sculpture, particularly larger sculptures or installations incorporating space. Working and thinking in a spatial term has since become almost an instinct, and I naturally react to different spaces.
In some ways, the gallery setting does provide more freedom than a commercial music venue, as it is easier to move things around. In the gallery, you have to think about the layout, the dimension, the viewer’s movement, the convergence of direct and indirect sounds, and other people’s work. In a music venue, the stage and the speakers is generally pre-determined. You work with what you’re given, and find the best setting you can get during the sound-check. Still, I always try to go to the venue to see the space before I start my preparation for the live performance if possible. Or I will ask for photos so I get a rough idea. In this sense, I guess the working process is pretty similar for me, and strange and new spaces always get me very excited (laughs).
You played for several years as part of Mimosa Moize with Martin Thompson aka Pokk! – is the project still ongoing? It had a bit of a resurgence last year with your contribution to a Quark release.
Martin and I met through my work in 2006. The subject of collaboration always came up in conversation but we both had doubts in the concept back then. I can’t really recall what made us decide to finally work on something together. I guess we just gained confidence and trust in each other through working together on smaller projects. Mimosa Moize took shape in 2009 and has since been fortunate enough to work with many great labels and artists who had inspired its music. It might sound odd but the project has actually since taken on its own personality. Martin and I often talk about new projects/ideas for Mimosa Moize, but I don’t feel ‘it’ has yet reached any mutual agreement with us (laughs). I’d say that Mimosa Moize is definitely ‘alive’ though in a dormant period at the moment. I get the feeling that it will come back totally transformed and become something very different. I am looking forward to it!
For those who don’t know – can you explain a little bit about the Default series and its relation to SM-LL?
Default is a digital offshoot of SM-LL in two aspects. First of all the Default series is the digital release, serving as a stepping stone to SM-LL – limited pressed vinyl releases. Default utilises the digital platform to offer artists the opportunity to show their sonic experiments, it is particularly for new artists to the label. The work released on the Default Series can be a work-in-progress, a rough draft, and can even be a non-sound/music piece in the future; whereas, SM-LL will be the format for more full-fledged concepts and work.
Secondly, I think the Default series functions as a reminder for SM-LL. The very first release planned for SM-LL was actually a 12” vinyl, yet the budget fell short and the master plate had to be abandoned in the end. It was an unfortunate situation that’s probably quite common for small independent labels. We felt that the desire and need to push new music shouldn’t be stopped simply by financial difficulties, so Default was created to voice our ideas and to host the music that we believe in.
You’re working as a researcher at Goldsmiths University – can you tell us a little bit about your work there?
Ok… another hard one, and I will try my best to be short and concise (laughs). The research project at Goldsmiths was initiated by my chance encounter with American artist Roni Horn’s work at the Tate Modern in 2009. Without any prior knowledge of the artist, I went to see the exhibition and was totally captivated (I have since seen the Thames in a totally different light). What struck me was the experience of encountering ‘similar things in different forms,’ which was achieved by her sheer concentration on the process of doubling through a variety of different mediums including sculpture, drawing, photography and text. It was the notion of circumstances in time and space created through her doubling strategy, which I found particularly fascinating. The narrative of the work only started to unfold in the consciousness of the viewer after the second encounter or ‘re-encounter’ of the same or very similar work under the same or very similar circumstances taking place moments later. The very existence of her work lied in such narrative that it relied on the viewer’s encounter and re-encounter, which was only possible through this process of doubling.
Horn’s aesthetic thinking and strategy of doubling lent me the essential vocabulary to articulate the core subject in my own research practice, which is the notion of translation, or rather the very process of translation, the act of crossing over and going beyond as the prefix ‘trans-’ denotes. The ideal of translation is to find the perfect rendering from one language to another. From my own experience of being bilingual, I realise that there’s never a perfect rendering as there’s always something that falls in-between two systems, something that is slippery and untranslatable. I am especially interested in the very moment of being caught in-between the process of translating. It’s a very personal and transient place. It only takes place when particular circumstances arise, and I experience it in Horn’s work through her doubling and pairing. So there is a lot of doubling going on in most of the work I have produced at Goldsmiths, sound becomes an aesthetic agent to induce certain circumstances for people to experience this transient place I’m talking about.
I really enjoyed that quote from Susan Stewart on the Default 0003 page , particularly the line, “it is only by means of difference that identity can be articulated”. What role does literary theory play in your music? To what extent do you think literary criticism is important for understanding music?
That’s a very good question. To be honest, I don’t really know whether I am influenced by literary criticism or not (laughs). One thing for certain is that language is very influential on my thinking about work. I guess criticism also comes from the training of conducting a research project, as you learn naturally to look at things contextually and critically. I think it is helpful when it comes to analysis of your own work, either to trace your own development or to place your work amongst your contemporaries.
I think critical thinking is very helpful when it comes to understanding issues with music publishing, for example the conversion problem that Default 0006 has with MP3 online streaming. Certain frequencies do not translate well at all on the internet, yet sometimes you just can’t do anything about it. In the case of Default 0006, both tracks (Noisewave and Düsseldorf generator) have this very weird digital distortion in the sound after uploading up to bandcamp. It is certainly an annoyance, and there is nothing we can do but to put a special note in the blurb. Despite the disappointment, I start to think about the notion of compression and that leads me to Jonathan Sterne’s discussion on the meaning of music format and its impact on our experience with music.
Finally what’s next for yourself? Any other projects in the works for 2015?
I feel like letting myself follow the flow for a bit this year after completing my PhD last year… I think there will definitely be more stuff coming from en creux project, some sort of physical release perhaps. I am also working on some sort of live performance set-up for en creux, and hopefully something will come along later this year. Apart from my own project, I am also helping Martin with SM-LL and so far we have some extremely exciting artists and releases in the pipeline. I think it will be a great year for SM-LL. I am very excited about it!
Interview credits: Stray Landings http://straylandings.co.uk/interviews/en-creux-interview
Published May 16, 2015