Trust in distance, distance in


An essay regarding the creation of Itzama

by Jonas Sjøvaag

      When I worked on a new piece of music titled Itzama, I was at the very beginning of testing a method of creation, or rather, exploring a new way to come up with musical ideas, by which I mean ideas underlying the reason for making something. After all, is not music basically entertainment and something we experience simply because we can? I know the argument that follows, and will point out that the intention of this essay is not to address why we listen or why we create, but at least for me, in the situation I’m in, and have been in for a while, music is something I occupy myself with because I like it. Everything we do is a mixture of taste and / or preference, (Everyday Aesthetics, Gebhardt 2019) a daily necessity for some.

      Within that reasoning, a constant arise, and that constant is the search for why. In my case, as mentioned, I have come to believe that I do what I do simply because I like it, and that, for me, is usually enough of a force to go somewhere. Sometimes, though, I do what I do because I have unpleasant experiences from other artists output, which fuels a need to correct that experience by creating something else entirely. In other words, a force is always acting upon us from a distance. It affects how we work and create: we work for pleasure, by comparison to others, to respond to something that have happened now, before, over there, or close by, etc etc.

      However, that line of reasoning is, in itself, not very helpful when it comes to creating something new. It can lessen or heighten the morale in the process of doing something, but if the point is to create something that leaves the path we are currently on, or if the point is to discard the path altogether, it’s important to have a topic, for instance, or a goal, or something from which an idea can bounce back, be rounded out, evolve, and become a finished piece of (in my case) music. 

     I think the idea of working by pleasure, response-to-something & topic is fairly common, and not very interesting in itself: it is just a process, or a method, or even a toolset, that can get an artist from nothing to a finished piece. Thus, my only reason for writing about it here lie solely in that I need to clarify the background of what comes next, or possibly even to clarify my view on topics I regard as being given. In my experience, statements like “I do what I do because it’s fun” is usually not what people emphasise when they are asked for reasons of doing something. I always assume it’s because without elaborate explanations, people will, bluntly stated, think of you as a bit dim if all you do is having fun. My opposing argument would be that that depends a lot on what you find pleasure in, but then again, some people find pleasure in nothing at all, which is all but a mystery to me. Hence, I clarify. We are societies of nothing but different opinions and billions if interpretations, after all, and the question also ties in with trust in your surroundings: do you trust someone to be clever enough to let them come away with “fun” as a description, or do you distrust them because you cannot decipher their position based on something that simple?

      Going back to Itzama, I made a theoretical machine, to help me in researching my topic, which now is “what kind of music arise when combining different musical (and personal) identities”. The machine, still a work in progress, and very much a prototype of something that could become a tool for a cyclical artistic process, in which the results could be fed back into the machine, creating new things, from new things, or new things from old and new things, or any other combination deemed necessary, is, if nothing else, a very helpful way of defining a method of creation, that allows for results that are all moving targets. They are not too specific, not too vague, but just enough of both to stimulate another theoretical, and physical (obviously) machine, namely the brain, to help it, to overcome my (and yours) pre-defined neural pathways, to take strolls down other hidden trails, without being lost completely. What my theoretical machine cannot do, though, is to help me come up with a name for it. For fun, I pretend that it is because the machine cannot work outside the borders of what it itself defines, much like we cannot understand something outside the way we understand things but take that as something to ponder under starlit skies, more than an actual topic of discussion in this essay.

      The [NONAME]-machine works by first defining basic musical elements in my own artistic practice, then it asks me to create something based on these elements, and, finally, I play them back together to see what that sounds like. I can (and have) ask for input from other people, in which their response is playing and improvising on top of an audio track that I have first created. I do the same with this material, I play it back, on top of each other, listening for interesting bits that trigger creation, and then I make something from that. Always looking for that moving target where things get interesting. At the very beginning, there already was distance involved because I deliberately chose people from outside my usual circle, I had a feeling that it would make a more, for me, unexpected experience, but as the topic of this essay is the track Itzama, there were only personal and self-inflicted distances involved.

      Starting with the lyrics, the words is a re-write of William F. Burroughs lyrics for a track called “Pook the destroyer”, and by re-write, I mean that I have used his text for inspiration, trying to find something in it on which I could create something in a sort of response, or parallel textual logic, or whatever you might call it. This text was published in 1979, then released as a CD in 1990 (Dead City Radio), so it is by no means new, or current, or even remotely related to nowadays events, but as texts go, it is a good one. 

      The response, and working with it like that, gave the entire process an element of seriousness, an extra weight, given the fact that I even dared touch upon the words of a true American master writer, and I think that maybe that also was why it felt interesting and gave it all a sense of purpose. In the process, I was in a theoretical dialogue with William, through the rewrite of his words, and on the way I learned a lot of what was embedded in them. Because of feedback from others in my current academic network, this process even led me to create an ethics group, trying to figure out what the referencing of Mayan culture, first in Burroughs writing, then in my response, could mean to someone with a closer relation to it.

      The method builds directly on a method constructed by the French Dadaists in the 1920’s, developed through, amongst others, Brion Gysin, and eventually popularized by Burroughs himself (and this -> because of popularization), but I must admit that up until now I had, and still have, only a vague idea on how this art-historical piece of info holds it all together. I, personally, always have a response first, and a reason later, and I guess that holds true for a lot of other people and artists as well, not insinuation that everything happens by chance, but sort of implying that maybe things, in a real world AR practice, often happen out of want, need, circumstance, coincidences and general lack of clarity, more than out of background knowledge, factual oversight and precision (which, btw, would be the AI approach to it all, probably a topic suitable for a separate essay).

      Moving deeper into the production of Itzama, this initial starting point, the discovery of the textual background, and the thoughts that came from that, made the entire song grow from words, pitch, and percussive patterns to something that carries a meaning, and a reason for being listened to. At the very least it does that for me because I have become so deeply connected to it, finding new points of interest all the time. That is what pushed the vocals into autotune, for example. I wanted to detach my voice from myself, both to make it sound a bit otherworldly, like something sung from a theological above, or from a physical past, and by Sabine Hossenfelder’s logic, then, also from the deterministics of a quantum future. So, I played around a lot, like always. There’s a more or less standard production process involved, it relies on VST plugins (and outboard HW) to do stuff to a lot of the audio stuff. Like with the the voice, changing formants, making it sound different, or the drums, chopping them up at intervals defined by the transient peaks in each track, then quantizing, putting it back together, smearing it out here, narrowing it down there. Or midi. Or a analog synths. Or. Or. Or. … All done to push the sound and the beat and the melody, and thus the text, forward, making a backdrop for the story told. From a listener’s perspective, all of these things are within reach, for them, the same as for me. It all depends on the amount of effort they put into it. What I can hear, and the interpretation I can give, anyone else can hear and give. All it takes is a bit of effort, and trusting that it takes you somewhere interesting.

      While finalizing music, the need for a public statement of some sort always appears. I have previously done this in many different ways. Release gig (sure), release tours (yeah), paid promotion through SoMe networks (yup), silent release, betting on the grapevine effect (of course), music video (yes), and on and on and on.

There is another world of work opening up when something is to be presented. That world demands effort, as well. In addition to the efforts already made. In my case, I have tried more or less everything there is, and all methods, to some degree, work. So, that’s fine. I get stuff out, and feedback comes back in. I would like, though, to get my listeners a bit closer, or rather, would like them to view my work in a way that aligns with my idea of what I present.

      Sometimes it works by simply putting the result on YouTube, and pushing it through all channels available, paid and unpaid, contests, networks and so on, but I have this nagging feeling of internet attention span, that it in reality has put a limit (perhaps vague, but still present) on what I can do and cannot do while showcasing something online; that the very idea of accessibility is also something that goes in the way of our ability to focus, to take in new (by which I simply mean something not seen before) things, or spend the time necessary to go down that lane your brain has not been before. It is hard, and can be tiresome, I’ll acknowledge that…

      With that background, I decided to explore further, by creating a music video that is in many ways the very opposite of a usual YouTube success, and as such, it is not intended to be viewed on YouTube at all. In fact, I made a box for it, a separate installation piece, an alien shape made from construction foam, valchromat, glass, mirrors, drain pipes, Raspberry Pi 4 + LCD screen, in which the video lives, happily looping forever, with a headset providing audio for whoever wants to have a look or a listen. The reasoning behind it was that I wanted the video to be a cyclical thing, something that can repeat endlessly, to allow viewers to enter, and exit, at random intervals, watching 15 sec here, 30 sec there, which, when considering that the video is 17 minutes long in total, means that the chance of seeing something else while hearing the same thing, is strong. To achieve the wanted results, I connected to strangers via my professional network (distance), hired two dancers (trust), a Danish master student at KHiO and a Norwegian professional from Stavanger, booked a dance hall (trust), brought my usual videographer (known factor), and made a short choreography (distance). Amateur choreography, that is, I have no previous experience in this, and the only idea was to give certain cues to the dancers during the three minutes of the track itself. Then, they were asked to improvise, or “interpret by memory” the previous choreography, before handing over the dance to the other person (trust).

      We did three takes each. I do not remember which ones were used, but they all worked (success!). The final part of the video is an overlay of the videos, which is really the apex of the idea itself: it looks like a choreographed couples dance, and at the same time, both dances have a very soloistic approach, and feel, in that they, at certain moments, almost mirror each other’s movements, and they both give the effect of being the shadow of the other.

      Now that I write this and look at my installation piece next to me, it looks like a stalagmite rising from the floor. It might as well have been something found in a cave hundreds of meters below the earth’s surface. My goal was to put into words how trust in others, and also how this trust allows us to move into unknown territory, both creating a distance in an artistic process by reaching further and looking elsewhere. At the same time this searching for “something else” closes that distance gap inversely, by giving us trust in a process, through actual experience. In the creation of both lyrics, music, video and installation, this attitude has been fundamental. Througout the entire creative process behind this track, a mere three minutes long, but in reality, the distillation of work lasting for months, I worked to incorporate as many new connections as possible, both human, but also connected to skill and allowing the reason for why evolve and lead the way to more new ideas for future work. Still, the essence of it feels like it’s evading me. I find it hard to put into words how the connection between trust and distance works, so instead I would like to finish this piece by stating that the entire thing came to be, because I believe that: when I ask someone to participate, known or unknown, they participate to the best of their ability. If I then, in return, use that same logic when I assess the material I have received, or collected, or discovered, there can be no fault to it. Going from there, it should be possible to create a creative map, or a [NONAME]-machine, in which the points of interest, or basic elements of creation, is not defined by highs or lows, by topography, by genre, likeability or any other means of comparative measure, but rather by answering a simple question: does this come from a best effort by the contributor, and is my response resonating on that same level, ie. am I responding to the best of my own efforts?

      Going back to the piece, the viewers and listeners, although they might be fewer, will most likely have a closer interaction with the video and the track, compared to the all-available YouTube-followed-by-Facebook-approach. Or Instagram. Or the endless scrolling through TikTok. In reality, who cares about anything? Is that 15-second window what we have, or is it a choice that we make ourselves? I believe the latter, a point I would think is fairly obvious by now, and thus, by creating that distance, to make my video less available, it somehow seems closer, more real, and easier to experience; something that might, in other aspects as well, be truer than we like to think.


© Jonas Sjøvaag / University of Agder