Strap on headphones, and the sixteen minutes of Shift Symm is a brain-tickling assault. Even just within the stereo field, raw textures rumble and dance until you feel the sound’s structures inside your head.
I was attracted to Zeno van den Broek’s work partly because that sense of patterning in sound and visual formed a work I thought deserved special integrity as a release. This is to me an encouraging sign that there are new frontiers for archaic, exposed AV minimalism in the post raster-noton age.
Shift Symm therefore saw a digital release alongside a limited edition audiovisual art release on Sedition. (More on that process soon.) In addition to Zeno’s own videos, you can catch this beautiful creation by artist Daan Kars, first premiered by data transmission:
In Los Angeles, we were a digital partner of The Billboard Creative (TBC), a project that found new homes for digital art both on the Web and (true to California culture) on roadside billboards. That was featured on The Creators Project:
And in bringing Zeno’s work out on Establishment, I hoped here on CDM we’d also get a bit closer to the artist and process, as a microcosm of what’s happening in a larger scene. So here, the Dutch-born, Copenhagen-based artist talks to us about how he works. I think in the same way the sound makes my ears buzz and the visuals my pupils vibrate, you may find some resonance in his approach to process and material.
Let’s start with sound. There’s a genuine rawness and purity of tone to this record. How did you assemble that? Was there some thought to sort of make this extremely immersive for headphones, for larger sound systems?
All sounds of Shift Symm are based on sine waves and white noise. During the development of my previous album Divergence, I created a method of physical manipulation of those two ingredients. I recorded the pure sound sources onto cassette tapes, after which I manipulated and destroyed the tape in various ways — like using sanding paper, heating the cassettes. or letting them soak in Coke for a few weeks.
I managed to record some sound of the abused tapes and create instruments out of those recordings in Ableton. The results had such a nice balance between distortion and roughness, while maintaining the character of the sines and noise sources, that I decided to use them again for Shift Symm, but this time in combination with direct pure sine waves and noise from the oscillators.
One of the principles which I worked with on Shift Symm is shifting the wavelengths of sine waves relative to each other to create interference. This interference happens in the space in which you listen to the album, which gives the immersive listening experience and creates a strong relation to your surroundings.
Did the formal conception for the visuals relate to how you imagined the sound?
Yes, for both the visuals and the sound, I used one single concept, which gave me a coherent set of compositional tools for the whole work and creates a strong relationship between the two. The concept is based on creation by shifting. By displacing very simple elements like lines and grids in the visuals, and pulses and wavelengths of sine waves in the music, I looked for unexpected and in a way uncontrollable events and results.
This was inspired by the idea of Slavoj Zizek on the ‘breach of symmetry’ which he describes in his book Event. It’s the notion that a system which is in an equilibrium, in which all energy and movement is in symmetry, can be brought into a trajectory of unpredictable events by shifting elements within the system until the symmetry is breached. This breach leads to a process of change, which eventually results in a new entropy. By working with a strong concept like this, I try to on one hand connect the different aspects of the work, and on the other hand, to pull myself out of my comfort zone to explore new fields of work. In this way I make sure that all visuals and all sounds on all levels are connected – both on the large scale of the three movements of the triptych, as well as on the micro-scale of a certain phrase of sounds or movement of lines within those parts.
How did the relationship with the visuals come about in the creative process? At what stage did you work on each?
For Shift Symm, I tried to take the relation between the sound and visual aspects to the next level by creating a purely digital audiovisual and media-specific work and to take a step away from a physical release, which always focuses on either the visual or the auditive. By releasing it on the platform of Sedition, I hope to have found a more equal realization of the intermedia.
By applying the concepts and movements to the different senses at the same time, I tried to find the strongest interrelation between them. It was fascinating to discover the different results of the same methodology in image and sound and to express this tension. After creating this audiovisual foundation, I fed the images into a system I designed which manipulates them in relation to the music, looking for a feedback loop between the senses. This manipulation ranges from x/y shifting of layers to distortion of the image.
For me, this synergy between the senses is the deepest and most realistic way of expressing various concepts and notions, because in our sensory system the senses are very strongly linked, and they give us the possibility to fully experience the space we inhabit. By working with multi- or inter- media, I hope to come closer to this core of sensory involvement.
I really like that, as you talked about your tools, you do have a really direct and visual approach to how your produce. It’s not code; it’s not abstraction – there’s some immediacy to it. Is there some sense of drawing visuals directly?
I think this relates to my background in architecture, in which naturally drawing plays a big role, and in a way drawings are still the foundation of my work. Only now they are not a medium to realize something else or a representation, but the drawings are the work itself.
In Shift Symm, the drawing started out with creating basic elements in vector-based CAD programs, after which they were animated in dialogue with the music composition. The next step was to layer this foundation of drawings with generated visuals, which have a more cause-effect kind of relationship with the sound. I believe there is a lot of tension in this combination of visuals which have been composed and have a longer span of movement with visuals that are triggered by events in the music: the friction between the visual layers gives unexpected results and beauty, something which often lacks in a one-to-one mapping of sound and image.
What’s your background; how did you enter this field?
In the summer of 2008, I graduated as an architect from the Technical University of Delft [The Netherlands], followed by a period in which I worked in an architecture firm. During my studies and work, I always played guitar in bands and founded my solo-project “Machinist.” This project gave me the freedom to develop a more abstract musical language and to discover the relationship between architecture and music.
After a while, I found out this way of approaching spatiality through art and music suited me much better than working with bricks, steel, and glass. The temporal aspect of working with sound and the ability to create work founded on philosophy like I studied at the university fascinated me immensely. It led to the decision to fully focus on my art and music and to continue my work with spatiality through the means I’m currently working with.
Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to have had various opportunities and commissions to create work in amazing places and to work with inspiring people who push me beyond my boundaries. Last year, for example, I received a commission from Gaudeamus to compose a piece for organ, vocal ensemble, and electronics in collaboration with Gagi Petrovic. This project, named Ob-literate, was somewhat similar in approach as Shift Symm; it investigated the different intermedia in relation to and based on strong concepts. While I work in various forms of expression, I think this recurring method of working combined with my love for minimalistic esthetics results in a coherency in my work.
I do really hope with Establishment that over time, we find a way to help people build a deeper relationship to certain records, as that’s something that matters in the records I love. What do you think our role could be in making that happen? What’s the responsibility of a label in helping that connection happen?
The key element of Establishment in my opinion is the focus on digital and streaming releases, which raises interesting questions on the relationship between your audience and non-physical art. In this field of intermedia releases and digital art, the old carriers of media (such as CDs and DVDs) are not sufficient anymore. Whereas some of these releases are meant for and could be displayed in museums or galleries, there are very little platforms that release this kind of art for ‘home display’. I’m very happy with the collaboration between Sedition and Establishment on my release, which takes a step in this direction and which is crucial to create a platform that can support the further development of this kind of art.
Speaking of giving records quality listens, what is an album or two lately that made you really stop everything else you were doing and get lost?
Two albums I’ve been fascinated by lately are Lunch Music by Yannis Kyriakides and The Neurobiology Of Moral Decision Making by Mark Fell & Gábor Lázár. Both albums are uncompromising and do not always pleasure the listener but they continue to trigger and activate my mind. The album (and live performance) by Kyriakides is based on the book by William S. Burroughs from 1959 and revolves around a polyphony of voices which can be found in Burroughs his work. Kyriakides composed a beautiful synergy between live electronics, percussion and voices performed by the excellent Dutch ensembles Silbersee and Slagwerk Den Haag.
The Neurobiology Of Moral Decision Making triggers me in its bare bones and intensely minimalistic approach in which the two distinct worlds of Lázár and Fell touch and complement each other. I’ve been following Mark Fell for a longer time while Lázár caught me by surprise during a performance at the Berghain during the CTM Festival in 2015. The collaboration between these two is a beautiful example of how working together can maintain a strong character without resulting in compromises.
You’re doing a lot of live performance. How will you adapt the work to a live set?
For me, it’s vital to perform live, because that enables me to fully explore and manipulate the relation between sound, image, and architecture. I work with white noise and sine waves, which are opposites in the way we experience them in a space. Pulses of white noise can be easily located and can relate strongly to reflections of the space while sine waves are very hard to locate and can achieve a strong connection to the architecture by use of standing waves and interference.
When I perform live, I manipulate various parameters of these elements, such as the intervals between the pulses or the frequency of waves, thereby responding to the reaction I get from the space. I see the architecture of the venue as a collaborator with whom I have to create a dialogue to reach the highest levels of intensity.
During these performances, I use my visuals as a graphic score — responding to the movements and events that occur while at the same time these visuals are being manipulated by the sounds I create, which are being influenced by the space I am performing in. With this process, I aim to diffuse the boundaries between the senses, for myself as well as for the audience. For the live execution of Shift Symm I’ve created a performance which merges the three tracks with new material that is based on the same building blocks as the three compositions. Since this foundation is quite minimalistic, it’s possible to create big gestures with minimal interventions: a small alteration of an interval for example has huge results in the system of shifting.
Sedition has given people a different way of connecting to the visuals. But will you also bring this to a gallery context? What would that look like?
There’s a lot of talk lately in getting away from screen culture and so on. But I wonder, in the case of music listening, could the privacy of VR and screens actually help people to focus — to have a personal experience away from the social world?
Personally, I’m not that attracted to VR, partly because I have a problem with experiencing 3D movies and VR content: I get extremely car sick within no time! Perhaps this is due to my heightened sensitivity towards spatiality; I don’t know. But to answer your question: I think there’s a huge chance for galleries and museums to move into the area of offering a high-quality experience of digital art in a social context without losing a focused experience of the art. I think people are moving away from the digitalized social connections and are focusing more on real-life connections. This also plays a big role in the growth of festivals which are often more about the social gathering than about the music and art that are presented.
Perhaps there’s a division going on between a hub-like function of museums and galleries that can combine the presentation of digital art with a social aspect and the VR experience which offers a capsulated private viewing without any social connection. I do think it’s important to be aware of the situation your work is being presented in and that media-specific work will become more and more relevant.
What sorts of connections as far as other artists are important to you at the moment? What’s inspiring you?
Since my work is strongly based on concepts, I try to find inspiration in a broad context of the concept I’m focusing on, such as various related art and philosophy. I do have a habit to look for inspiration in places that are not directly in the same method of expression which I’m working in to keep a fresh and personal path from concept to creation. So if I work on a piece of music composition I tend to research visual arts and philosophy, not music itself.
This can reach from a novel by Don Delillo to the architecture of Peter Zumthor or paintings by Callum Innes. Creating Shift Symm, for example, I looked into the work of Carl Andre, how he arranges his beautiful basic building blocks of wooden, copper and graphite blocks. His poems were a big inspiration in the fascinating displacement and grouping of words on paper via the means of a typewriter.
Thanks, Zeno. Check out the music on all major streaming and download services, or get it from our Bandcamp store.
If you’re in Europe, you’ve some chances of catching Zeno live. He plays Rotterdam’s sound//vision 2017, as part of the prestigious International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR). He’s at Rewire in Den Haag next month.
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