5 questions to Alec Hall (composer, co-director of Qubit)

On March 29 and 30, 2013, Qubit—a new contemporary music and performance art initiative founded in 2010—will present Non-ference. We talked with Alec Hall, composer and co-director of Qubit.

What is Noise Non-ference?

At the end of 2011, the Talea Ensemble led a conference on microtonality and where we presently stand in relation to what is a very wide-open field. I thought that this type of studied, public reflection on the specificities of a precise moment in music at large was a wonderful thing —we always look back upon these historical instances fondly but frequently lament that such exciting moments are not occurring in the present — and that they ought to be done more often! Microtonality has long been an interest of mine, but in recent years I’ve become more attracted to aspects of noise in music (although the two are not mutually exclusive, by any means), and since the microtonal topic had just been covered, I thought that the time was ripe to give the idea of noise such a turn in the spotlight. The Non-ference aspect comes from a desire to eschew the stuffy academic component of such gatherings. Bryan (Jacobs, Ed.) and I like to think of Qubit as an organization of the present-day, which is to say, that the historical hierarchies between the artist and the spectator ought to be problematized significantly more than they currently are. Unfortunately, new music appears to be the least invested in this notion compared to other contemporary arts.

Alec Hall

Alec Hall

Back in 1997, in a TV interview, Björk was asked the difference between a noise and a sound. Her answer (in French) was: “c’est la même chose!” (It’s the same thing). What’s your take on this?

She’s right, of course, but only from a phenomenological point of view. It’s crucial to remember the distinction between “Noise” as a concept, and noise as a proper noun. As Martin Iddon suggests, at its simplest, “noise might be conceived of as an interference in a signal path.” Noise can be represented in nearly any medium, whether visual, auditory, or in more abstract forms, like a data stream. In the more common usage of the word, a noise references a type of sound that is typically unwanted, a by-product of something irrelevant to the larger auditory scene, or indeed something truly interruptive, like a cell phone ringing in the middle of the last movement of Mahler 9. Neither definition is mutually exclusive though, and for our musical purposes, it’s important to think of them concurrently. One hundred years ago this month, the first philosophical division between noise and sound was theorized by Luigi Russolo, when he wrote that noise was, generally speaking, the resultant sonic occurrences of quotidian life. Sound, on the other hand, was something that derived from a purer, musical intention. Cage wrote in his Future of Music: Credo (1937) that “Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.” Björk’s attitude is Cagean in spirit, but I think it’s very important to keep in mind the differences as outlined by Russolo: noises are sounds, of course, but their origins are fundamentally distinct from what we typically call a “sound”. This distinction makes composing with noise extremely exciting and poses a great many questions.

One of Qubits’ aims is to eliminate “superfluous ritual” and “consider noise from the perspective of the art itself.” What kind of ritual are you referring to?

I had a chance to visit dOCUMENTA(13) last summer in Kassel, when Aaron Einbond and I performed as our experimental noise-duo at Ursel Schlicht’s Sonic Exchange. What struck both of us more than anything was that it wasn’t just that the fourth wall between artwork and viewer had been breached, but rather that the notion of surfaces, which is to say, the placement and containment of the artworks, was undergoing a radical shift. There were of course, traditional galleries but, for example, in the main exhibition space of the largest museum (and the first piece to be experienced by a visitor) there was a work by English artist Ryan Gander that was nothing but gentle breezes, guiding you from room to room. Similarly, a very powerful work by the Irish artist Susan Philipsz was installed at the Kassel Hauptbanhof. With only a few festival-themed signs to guide you to the right place, it was a completely disorienting experience. I found the work, at the very end of the platform, far away from the station terminal, where carefully concealed speakers were broadcasting content via radio. The content itself was, at least to me, less interesting than the manner in which I found my way to it, and its relationship to reality. After a time, one began to see everything in Kassel through this lens — physical objects, interpersonal interactions, or even the weather.

When it comes to music, we are still dealing primarily with a 19th century mode of public presentation. We assemble in groups and witness the proceedings, nearly always in spaces that are deemed acoustically satisfactory for the art. What happens when we begin to interrogate this construction? In what kinds of directions might the music go if we allow it to be free of these ancient constraints? More importantly, what would happen if we started composing music (or noises, or sounds) for spaces that weren’t designed for music at all?

How will you present visual, sonic, and written artwork in an engaging way?

Non-ference 2013With the Non-ference, we hoped to capture the spirit of dOCUMENTA as much as possible, and as such we opened up the events to any kind of content, any medium at all, that proposes a unique interaction with noise — in either of the above definitions. Text, image, video, installation art, performance art, pieces for fixed-media and the usual “musical compositions” are all a part of the programming. We decided that it would be best for participants to go at their own pace, and so we have produced a companion volume for the texts and images. This book also has links inside to an online gallery of a number of other works, including tape pieces, further texts and the images and video. On the second day, there will be two main concerts of chamber pieces, plus several hours when participants can explore the installations, and the works for fixed media that will be exhibited.

How did you select the artists featured in Noise Non-ference?

Until the Non-ference, Qubit had always operated on a strictly curatorial basis, but Bryan and I had always wanted to try out a call-for-scores. We went much further than the usual “[new music ensemble] is looking for 1 piece for [an obscure combination of instruments] that we will program 2 years from now.” Composers today see these calls and always apply to them, so the jury has to choose one work out of hundreds. We wanted to be able to choose a large number of pieces and program as many deserving artists as possible. The call even stipulated that proposals for a new concept would be accepted, so we left it open pretty much as widely as possible. Aaron Einbond joined us to help curate the selections, which made the process take longer, but only because the three of us would have wonderful, endless debates over the submissions. The reaction was very positive, and we received about 160 applications across a huge number of formats. It took weeks to go through all the submissions, but we are really excited about the selected works and we got to hear and experience a lot of new voices from around the world that we never would have known about before.

For more information about Non-ference, visit: