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Caroline Park

Caroline Park Live at the Goethe-Institut Boston (Photo: Susanna Bolle)

Caroline Park is a young Providence-based sound artist and composer. She works with computers and electronics to create electroacoustic and audio/visual works that are spare, cerebral, and unsettling. Her first recording, a cassette titled Grain, has just been released on Private Chronology. Caroline will be performing live on Rare Frequency on Thursday, June 2, 2011. Prior to her performance on the show, she answered a few questions about her work by email.

For the sake of a little context, could you tell me a bit about your background? When did you begin studying? How did you come to be interested in working with electronics?

I guess I was classically trained growing up — mostly piano, some percussion, and a bit of voice (singing in a treble chorus). I started writing music for acoustic instruments pretty seriously about mid-way through college, but it wasn’t until I spent a year away in London that I became very focused on / interested in time + space in sound, static + decaying sound, and sparse sounds in general. I went to a Samuel Beckett exhibit at the Centre Pompidou in 2007 and it had a huge impact on me, I think mostly because it was my first time encountering Beckett, and also experiencing video, sound, and text incorporated into installations all in one exhibit with an aesthetic that really resonated with me. At the same time I started listening to and learning about Alvin Lucier, Morton Feldman, John Cage, Iannis Xenakis, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. It was a loaded year; no one had told me to do any of those things, it was just sort of my own curiosity at the time.

I was still writing music for traditional instruments, but became more interested in “arranging” sound and silence in blocks and general textures. What actively propelled me into working with electronics was a piece I had written in 2008, originally for an amplified narrator and instruments — the person who was supposed to be the narrator unfortunately couldn’t perform in the concert, but I had a recording of his voice, and in a panic I approached John Mallia, who runs the Electronic Music Studio and is on composition faculty at NEC. John helped me design the piece as a work for 5-channel recorded speech spatialization and instruments using MaxMSP, and pretty much right after that happened, I decided to stay at NEC for a master’s to work with him and focus on electronics. That was actually my (second) introduction to MaxMSP; I had taken an introductory class on Max in 2005 with Paul Burdick (another amazing teacher / mentor) but I didn’t understand it at the time. I took Paul’s class again in 2008 and suddenly things made much more sense.

I wrote a lot of short, fixed pieces for traditional instruments and electronics, as well as fixed pieces that combined sounds with slow / sparse video and (recorded) text. This text period started sometime in 2007 — I was writing a lot of short, original texts, mostly touching on subjects like the passage of time, dreaming and going nowhere, memory, etc. I asked friends to translate these texts into different languages like Farsi and Turkish and Japanese, and then asked those same friends to record themselves speaking these translated texts, and through this I accumulated a small bank of recorded text samples. Now that I think about it, my friends must have thought I was weird to ask for their translations and recordings of their voices. But I was interested in the way those languages sounded, and perhaps more importantly I was intrigued by how their recorded voices were both familiar and unfamiliar to me. This idea of familiarity / unfamiliarity, be it with speech or “music”, and in relation to electronics, is something I continue to pursue in my work.

You’re currently studying at the MEME program at Brown, after finishing studies at the New England Conservatory. What is the nature of your studies at Brown? How does it compare and/or complement to what you focused on at NEC?

At NEC I focused mostly on attempting to create polished, fixed music — I wasn’t really interested in writing for traditional ensembles like string quartets or a chamber orchestra. Near to the end of my time at NEC, I was trying to explore different media — recorded text, video and sound in installation format, the idea of a “gallery exhibit” — all of which was a bit difficult to do, not having easy or ready access to speakers, projectors, screens, or a gallery-type space. It was a music conservatory, so I did the best I could with a lot of help from faculty and staff, despite the resources not being very accessible to students. The electronic studio was there of course, where I spent many nights rendering video, etc., but moving electronic equipment to be installed in acoustic performance spaces was a total pain.

John (Mallia) was the one who encouraged me to apply for the MEME program, and after reading about it extensively, it sounded like it’d be the best place to continue creating these recorded text / video / sound pieces I was doing. However, I was totally naive; I was immediately blown away by all the things I had never encountered before at NEC, and was hitting head-on for the first time here at MEME at Brown — real-time performance + installation, generative music + art, all kinds of tangible materials from hand-made speakers to conceptual sculpture, and people with all sorts of ideas about art. It was shocking in a good and much-needed way. This first year in MEME was very exploratory; I took the liberty in doing the following: building boxes, learning about LEDs and electroluminescent wire, making analog holograms, playing with salt, trying out multi-channel video, exploring light, creating an online intervention, constructing a suspended sound-sculpture, and soldering plenty of contact mics / piezo speakers. Few actually became mildly successful explorations, most things were curious experiments. I’m now trying to figure out how all or some of these things may or may not be related to my core idea-interest in familiarity / unfamiliarity with sound, in both real-time performance and installation.

Have there been any composers, musicians, teachers who have a particularly strong impact on what you do?

I’ve drawn aesthetic and/or conceptual inspiration from Alvin Lucier, Samuel Beckett, and Marina Abramovic, to name a few off the bat. I’m sure there are more, but I tend to get pretty involved in small, contained ideas that sit and ferment in my head — for instance, exploring and manipulating memory in field recordings, spaces / places that are “not here, not there” like airports and train stations, miniature and large-scale objects and what that might suggest. I’m also constantly learning from my colleagues in MEME and at RISD’s Digital+Media — everyone is doing something different and unique, but relevant in some ways to the things I’m interested in. Location also definitely plays a part in the on-going process: I’m quite happy here in Providence, which definitely has a positive effect on my work; I feel productive with most things I do, even if it is just something I’m trying out for the first time. Stable location aside, I’m also generally productive while in transit, simply because being in a non-permanent location is interesting to me and thus has an impact on my thinking. Mostly though, the idea of a blank surface / template / vessel has a very strong impact on what I do, in sound and other areas. I feel that there’s much potential in the unknown, and it’s usually this concept of the unknown that I feel has a particularly strong influence on my work. All of this is probably why I tend to be inspired by just observing and absorbing what’s around me. This mentality also keeps things fresh or energized in my mind.

Your first release, Grain, was just released on Private Chronology, which I must admit I have yet to hear — other than the two audio excerpts available online? Could you talk a bit about the four pieces that make up the cassette, their history, and how they relate to each other?

Sure. Most of the material was improvised and recorded live in MaxMSP without edits from December 2010 to January 2011. Reuben (from Private Chronology) went to my first solo laptop performance at the Lily Pad in Cambridge (summer of 2010), and not too long after, mentioned he liked what I did at the show and asked if I’d like to release something on his label. So I began mulling over all sorts of ideas, but only really started churning out something tangible near the end of December. As far as the title goes, I figured Grain suggested something simple and minimal, but just enough to give a sense of a beginning into a new territory. Here are some track details:

Side A is a slow, exploring improvisation that uses two looped recorded speech samples as the only driving force which, over time, become clipped, bit-crushed, filtered, reverberated, delayed, and compressed, sometimes re-entering the cycle or exiting the cycle prematurely. It lasts just under 30 minutes.

Side B has three short, diverse pieces: Minor Pigeon (9:07), monochrome (11:23), and 5 (8:51). Minor Pigeon is mostly a time-stretched piano sample that falls into a Raster-Noton-like minimal groove with subtle shifts; monochrome is an ambient landscape that uses bits of processed recorded speech as an informal, indistinct “path”, and to wrap up, 5 consists of muted string samples and sine/triangle waveforms, looping and layering on their own accord.

All of the pieces on both sides of the tape (except for the beginning of Minor Pigeon) were performed in real-time in MaxMSP.

Caroline Park Live at the Goethe-Institut Boston (Photo: Reuben Son)

How do you handle live performance? Does it vary widely based on context, from performance to performance? Is the process similar to how, for example, you put together the pieces on Grain?

I think I do treat live performance differently, depending on the context. I’m still writing concert music for traditional instruments and live electronics, and in that setting, I’m mostly the engineer, the way one might run live electronics for music by Stockhausen or Tristan Murail in order to realize the sound design in an already carefully-constructed piece. I’ve also, after a long hiatus, recently started improvising on instruments again (piano and percussion) in a group setting — I’ve been playing with Brown’s MEME Ensemble, an electroacoustic improvisation group, and that has really changed the way I hear things and react / respond / not-react / not-respond to sound in a live setting. I think the way I approach solo laptop performance is probably most similar to the way I put together the tracks on Grain. At least, that’s what I think for now — things could change in the future.

What projects (recordings, performances, installations, etc) do you currently have in the works?

I’ll be running electronics for a few concert pieces at Steve Drury’s Sick Puppy Festival in mid-June, and in July I’ll be performing a solo laptop show at Cafe Fixe in Boston with Non-Event. I’m also playing a laptop set in August at Yes.Oui.Si in Boston with percussionist/sound artist Pete Negroponte. Other than that, I’ll be planning an electroacoustic concert for the upcoming fall at Brown, as well as creating new material for a 2012 CD release on experimental/new music label, Visceral Media Records, run by John Latartara.


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