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Everyday Sound Sculptor:
An Interview with Sawako

The Japanese musician Sawako works with familiar tools: field recordings, snippets of played music and a computer. Once combined, these common ingredients take on a more idiosyncratic, personal character, as Sawako uses everyday sounds to create quiet, diaristic, sonic vignettes out of everyday sounds. Until recently, Sawako’s recordings were limited to a few, devilishly hard-to-find cd-r and mp3 releases on labels such as magicElf, Aesova and Grain of Sound. In the past year, however, this trickle of releases has turned into a vertible flood, with Sawako, who currently lives and studies in New York, releasing three CDs in rapid succession. Each of these discs is very different one from the others: Yours Gray on and/OAR features field recording and found sound collages: Omnibus on Community Library is a mix of remixes and collaborations; and Hum on 12k is Sawako’s first overtly melodic album, featuring hazy, warmly textured soundscapes.

This interview was conducted in December 2005/January 2006 via email.

When and how did you first begin making music? How did you get into working with electronics? I understand that you began as a video artist.  Could you discuss your transformation from video artist to sound artist?  

When I was an undergraduate, in around 1999, I wanted to study video art, but, unfortunately, the teacher moved to another university, and many of his students moved to Christopher Penrose’s seminar, which was a computer music seminar by the developer of FFTease and PVNation and so did I. In the seminar, there were many interesting artists like the Mille Plateaux artist, Jane Dowe, and i.d., who has many friends around Mego. Also, the laptop music scene was in a phase of rapid growth, so it was easy to get involved. I never thought that I wanted to be a musician, but many people decided that’s what I was and offered me projects. Then, I came to be called “a musician” or “a sound artist.”

In thinking about my art-making process, the differences between processing and editing moving images and sound using the computer are not so big. Deleting all the movie files on Adobe Premiere was the starting point of what I am doing now: What remained on the project file was the layered sound tracks without visuals. Also, when you write the processing program by yourself, you can add the same basic ideas or system for both sound and moving images. They are time-based works, made using many frames. What I try to make is not classical music or a Hollywood soundtrack, so my working methods work well for me. Of course, there are many different techniques and details, and sometimes the same idea generates different results with audio and visuals.

I myself don’t feel it was a big transformation, shifting from video to audio. As evidence, recently I’ve been making some visual works with jitter and OpenGL. Meeting with R. Luke Debois (cycling74, Caipirinha, a teacher in ITP) and Amit Pitaru (interactive artist, ARS winner, teacher and student in ITP) has brought me back to the visual domain.

What most interests you about working with field recordings, particularly the sounds of everyday life? On your latest release, Hum on 12k, you work with a number of different sound sources and instruments.  Could you talk a bit about the process behind the music on Hum and how it differs from, say, a release like Omnibus or, even Yours Gray?      

Omnibus was made using a totally different process. It is something between a collaborative album and a remix album, and it was made about 3 years ago before Yours Gray. As you can find in the liner notes, it is like a message game: we exchanged the sound materials and made tracks [from them]. So, some of the tracks (6,7,9,10) are kind of remixes, using the materials from other collaborators. With some of my collaborators, we just did improvisational recordings, and they didn’t manipulate the materials.

Hum is the album for 12k, and one of the common interests of [12k founder] Taylor [Deupree] and myself is voice and “music,” so the album became much more pop-ish than Yours Gray. First of all, I recorded many melodies and “music.” I played the piano and improvised with the guitarist Hayato Aoki. Then, I collapsed and layered the music using a computer. I’m interested in the shift in modes of hearing from the “music” mode to the “sound event” mode, or vice versa. When you are talking in a cafe, your ears don’t concentrate on the background music — the music is one part of the sound of the environment around you. Hum is my first step in an experiment using obvious musical elements.

Some parts of Yours Gray are based on memories of working with various collaborators. Some parts of it are something like a fiction documentary. (cf. the basic sound of the last track is an unedited recording of Toshimaru Nakamura’s performance when he stopped playing, walked toward me, and said something to me, even though I was recording. Then, I added some sounds as an accent.) There are no such elements in Hum.

About field recording: from a very early point for me music was something like a fiction and nonfiction diary. Then as now, one of my interests was where the border lies between music and everyday sound — the relationship of the contents or sound phenomenon itself (something which we can record and analyze), the context (CD, performance on stage, everyday life situations) and the conditions of hearing (conscious, unconscious, the educational and developmental history of hearing). Also, storytelling is still one of the important themes of my work.

You are currently pursuing a Master’s degree NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications graduate program.  What is the nature of the program that you’re in and what are you studying in particular?

ITP is a community with 200+ students from 40+ different countries whose backgrounds are diverse — from an artist, a researcher or a designer to a doctor, an office worker and a comedian. I guess the percentage of Americans is about 60%, but many of them have experience of living outside the USA.

There is NOTHING we are studying in particular ;-) Because all of the students have different interests, skills, cultural backgrounds and purposes in coming to ITP, it is difficult to describe what ITP is. For students who don’t have computing skills, ITP is the place to study programming, soldering and how to use software. However, some of the students have the master degree of computer science, and some of the students are teaching interactive art in other universities. I feel ITP is more a community, where people help and stimulate each other, than a school, where the “teacher” teaches something for “students.” You can do your project as the class work if the idea is great and your teacher says it’s OK. ITP is a place to experiment with or without a computer and new media.

In terms of what I am doing there, my main research topic is the relationship between soundscape, the body and digital media.

Do you have any current projects, performances, or upcoming releases that you could tell me about?

My CD release party will be held at Tonic, NYC on Feb.12th 2006. w/ Taylor Deupree + Ken Kirschner and STRATEGY (Kranky, ORAC, and the label owner of Community Library). I think some compilations (Audio Dregs, cherry music, Ozu Yasujiro project for And/OAR) will be released in 2006. I am doing the remix of RF (plop), too. Also, I am starting to think about and plan my 3rd and 4th albums. They will have very different contents.

What is a neen ster?

One day, suddenly, I got an email from the neen guru, Miltos Manetas, and he wrote to me “I think you are a neen ster.”


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