THE VOICE OF ENERGY VOL. 053
Welcome back, my friends, to your irregularly scheduled program. I trust this finds you well.
Happy to be back at it this week with an interview with one of my favorite contemporary artists Yann Novak.
I hope you enjoy it.
Since the early ’00s, Yann Novak has produced an impressive amount of work in both visual and audio form that, as the artist’s statement on his website explains, seeks “to heighten… awareness of the present moment.” This has resulted in meditative, enveloping sound art, rich with drones and washes of synth color, that feel grounded and centering. Even when the pieces are site-specific, as with 2012’s Paradise & Winchester, a work created using field recordings captured in Las Vegas, they transport the listener to those locales in subtle, surprising ways.
While Novak puts so much of himself into his music, his work of late may be his most personal statements to date. With his 2019 album Slowly Dismantling, he has sought to center his queerness in his output and make himself “more fully visible in the work,” as he wrote at the time.
Novak has only made himself more present in his two 2021 releases: Lifeblood of Light & Rapture (out on Room40) and Finding A Way To Live, a piece created for Superpang. In each, Novak sorts through his emotional state in response to the current climate crisis and pandemic through music that is beautiful, but underpinned by an unmistakable tension and despair.
In the notes for your new album, you talk about how, since your previous album Slowly Dismantling, you are now making music in “a more immediate and honest way.” What does that say about the work you did prior to Slowly Dismantling?
For me the turning point with Slowly Dismantling was the acknowledgment of my queerness in relation to my work and making it explicit in my bio/website/etc. It was something I was scared to do and, as recently as 2019, had those fears confirmed by colleagues who advised me that doing it would pigeonhole my work. Once I had let go of that fear and put it out there, all of these other insecurities I was unaware of started emerging.
With Lifeblood of Light and Rapture I was trying to address my insecurities around making work that was expressive and/or overtly musical. I attribute those insecurities to an ex of mine when I was starting out. He was just out of grad school and my lack of a college degree made him insecure, even the pedigree of those he associated with was important to him. So he would project his insecurities onto me in the form of harsh critiques. It took years for me to realize how profound an effect that had on me. It had made me think way too much about the defendability of my work and the decisions I made. As an example, if I were making work for an installation, I would hold back from making it too musical, or even beautiful, just because I would not be able to defend those decisions to him. Once I realized I had been doing that, I was able to let those things go and work more instinctually. Now I judge my work on whether I like it and stop there.
So I guess the short answer is that, prior to Slowly Dismantling, I was unknowingly holding back, or being more guarded than I needed to be.
A lot of the issues that you wrestle with on this album - particularly the way that organizations and entities are trying to help make our lives better while contributing to the destruction of the planet - feel like they’re coming to a head. How are you coping with the dire news of late?
I have no idea hahaha. Truthfully it’s making me much more nihilistic, but I am trying to channel it in positive ways instead of negative ones. I figure if we are all going to burn in forest fires, run out of water, or the pandemic is never going to end, then why go out worried about other people’s opinions about the nerdy things I love, or how I dress, or holding on to those toxic relationships? I figure that way if we do survive all this, I can come out the other side a better and more confident person. If we don’t, then I didn’t spend the end worried about shit that does not really matter.
Where does a piece of music begin for you? Is it a process of trial and error or working out a plan ahead of time before making it a reality? For example - a song like “The Ecstasy of Annihilation” from the new album, which builds and develops in this slow, deliberate fashion. How do you construct a piece like that and when do you know it’s finished?
Something gets planned out ahead of time, but what type of plan that is varies from project to project. I am not a trial and error person, I do not have a daily practice. I circle my studio like an apex predator waiting to pounce until I have so many pent up ideas that I have no choice but to make work.
For Lifeblood of Light and Rapture I had come up with this idea to generate melodic midi patterns in a specific way, so I made these similar MIDI patterns for each track. Then I tried to figure out different ways to manipulate them so each track had its own character even though it came from the same stock. With “The Ecstasy of Annihilation,” I had already finished two tracks with a lot more movement than I am used to, so I wanted to pull back on movement and see how I could manipulate the synth playing the MIDI patterns in a way to make it as monolithic as possible. That might not be how the track lands for the listener, but that was my intent when I made it.
I know a track is finished when I can listen to it in the background and nothing jumps out that draws me back into editing mode. My subconscious is much more trustworthy when it comes to recognizing if something is finished.
What can you tell me about the instrumentation/equipment that you used on this new album?
I think I have a fairly modest studio, a few synths, a few hardware effects and a computer with 15 years of collecting plugins. For this album and most things I have released lately I used the Teenage Engineering OP-1, Novation Peak, Moog Minitaur, and lots of effects plugins. I only own one other synth, the Moog Sirin and I used that on “Dark, Perplexing, Ruptures of Plane.”
I was also really obsessed with including sounds in each track that could double as the room tone of a spaceship on a sci-fi tv show or movie. For that I used a recording from 2007 of a refrigerator at a friend’s house and processed it differently for each track, kind of imagining different ships or how different decks on a ship would sound. My intent was to give all the tracks the same basic DNA, the same lifeblood.
Has the pandemic and the lockdowns been helpful for you in terms of having time to create or has it been a struggle?
It’s been a struggle, I basically avoided the studio for most of 2020, I kept it up until the avoidance was making me crazier than working would, then I made Lifeblood of Light and Rapture and Finding a Way to Live over a six-week period. Then I stopped working again for a few months and just started working on something new at the end of July.
Bursts of creativity are usual for me, but there is usually not this much time in between. The time distortion from having the same routine every day for weeks and months made it easy for me to forget how long I had been away from the studio.
The piece that you composed for Superpang feels like an incredibly powerful and personal statement for you. Do you feel like you’ve ever released or written music that your heart wasn’t fully in?
I would not say that my heart was not in it, instead I would say that I was not aware of how much I was holding back. Growing up queer in the midwest at the time I did mean I had to do a lot of code-switching in order to feel safe. I would assess every situation and figure out how to act and how much of myself to expose in order to be safe, and I did it so often it became an unconscious act. Now imagine my ex creating an unsafe space to talk about the work I was making, without knowing it I started to apply a kind of code-switching when I made work. So as growing older has meant unlearning these defense mechanisms in my personal life, it also means unlearning them in my creative life.
What can you tell me about your move into making music as a young man? Was it something you knew you always wanted to do or did you arrive at that place gradually?
I did not have aspirations to make music, I took piano, violin, and clarinet lessons throughout my childhood and was terrible at all of them. My mother was a piano and guitar player and after my failures I could never have imagined being able to achieve her level of playing. Luckily I also loved to draw, so my aspiration was always visual art. In my teens, I DJed in the rave scene and in my late teens and early twenties I painted (terribly) and was kinda lost. Then I discovered an interview with Steve Roden and that opened me up to this world where sound could occupy space in a visual art context. For whatever reason, finding that space made everything kind of snap into place for me and I forged ahead with a little more direction than I had previously had.
I wanted to ask a bit about your record label. You took the imprint over from your father in 2005. How did you decide to resurrect Dragon’s Eye Recordings?
I decided that summer, just a few months before the first release. I had spent 2004 on my first big music collaboration, the score for a 60 minute dance piece. It premiered in February 2005 and after things settled I wanted a way to share that work with a larger audience, but I didn’t know anyone in the music scene and only had one friend that was making the same kind of music I was. Because I had seen my father create the label to release one thing to accompany his self published book it seemed like a natural way for me to release it. At the time I had no idea I would be doing it 15+ years later or that it would grow to what it is today.
Your dad sounds like he was also an avid music fan. What did he listen to when you were growing up?
He is and his taste has not changed much since I was a child. We have very different tastes and his is so esoteric and specific that it’s hard for me to get it right when asked, but I will try. Most of the music he likes is traditional; if the first pressing was not a 78, or if the copyright holder is still alive, then it’s going to be a hard sell for him. Within that period he leans towards Asian, Eastern Europe, Greek, or American… if it’s blues leaning. Then cross reference that with a preference for plucked string instruments like the pipa, bowed instruments like the hardanger fiddle, or lutes like the oud. When he does go contemporary he listens to revival folk, folk-rock, and blues-rock.
One of my favorite stories about him and his taste is taking him to a very hip and snobby record store in Seattle, the kind that the clerk hardly looks up when you walk in. He charges to the counter and pulls out a tiny list from his wallet of the records he was looking for and presents it to the clerk. The clerk’s eyes lit up as they read the list and my father got led through the store showing him things. The clerk finally settles on showing him a rare release on Tompkins Square, my father flips the album, looks at the fine print and says, “This is pedal steel guitar and I prefer lap slide guitar,” and hands it back and was done shopping.
Was he pleased when you started making music of your own? Is he a fan?
He was very supportive of me doing it and still is. He buys everything I release, but on whether he is a fan, I will pull a direct quote of his from when the LA Weekly interviewed him about the label: “It’s really not my kind of music.”
You’ve wisely focused on releasing work by underrepresented electronic and sound artists through DER. Do you feel like the access that BIPOC and LGBTQ+ artists have to labels and the structures of releasing music has gotten better?
I don’t feel qualified to answer that because as an artist I got my start when I was not leading with my queerness, so in a sense I was just another cis white man being given an opportunity. Now that I have the access I do, it’s easier for me to be more open about myself. But I don’t know if that’s the case for emerging artists.
I hope it is and I hope that my demo policy has shifted things in some small way. I can say that almost every demo I have received from an artist that mentioned the policy and was encouraged by it enough to submit ended up getting released. The flipside is I still assume that the cis straight white men that ignore the policy and submit demos to me will probably not have any trouble find a home for their work elsewhere.
Do you have any new releases on the horizon for DER that you can talk about?
I have two upcoming releases booked for this year, next up is a gorgeous ambient work by a BIPOC artist from London that goes by Fortresses. Then in the winter I have a release from LA artist Gabie Strong who also runs the label Crystalline Morphologies. After that I do not have anything booked, but I have no doubt some great demos will come in between now and then that will fill up my calendar for 2022!
What about for yourself - do you have any new music on the way?
I am working on a collaboration/split album with my partner Robert Takahashi Crouch that we hope to finish soon.
What are you listening to/reading/watching these days?
I have been taking a lot of inspiration from pop music these days, I think it’s a great place to hear new production techniques that you otherwise might miss if you listen to just electronic or experimental music, so Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever and Isaiah Rashad’s The House is Burning have been in heavy rotation. I also recently discovered the LA artist G. Brenner and his new album Brushfire is out this week and the singles he has dropped have been great!
I am midway through reading (listening to the audiobook) Dune Messiah. My dyslexia makes reading horribly unenjoyable, but during the pandemic I discovered audiobooks, so I am catching up on all the things I wanted to read and can now listen to! I recently finished all of The Expanse novels and novellas, and after the Dune series I am planning on diving into the Foundation series.
In one part of my life I need something thats utterly devoid of deep thought or cultural significance, so during the pandemic I have been catching up on 10 years of what the Real Housewives of different cities have been up to, but I do take breaks from them to watch anything new that comes out in sci-fi or fantasy!
That’s what I have for now. Back again soon with a new edition. I hope.
Artwork for this newsletter is from Afghan artists Latif Eshraq and M. Mahdi Hamed Hassanzada (above).