Cathy van Eck - "Setting gestures into relationships with sounds: a performative sound art"
Cathy van Eck (1979 Belgium/Netherlands) is a composer, sound artist, and researcher in the arts. She focuses on composing relationships between everyday objects, human performers, and sound.
Her work covers a wide range of practices mixing music, performance and sound installation.
I met Cathy several years ago and have performed her pieces regularly.
Our conversation takes place in the context of her creation Words, words, words by the members of the Collegium Novum Zürich given on June 11th in Zürich.
You come from a musical family and you received a classical musical education starting with the piano. My first question would be what was your first motivation to write music and especially your first encounter with experimental music.
I often say that it is above all thanks to my piano teacher Yvonne van de Vis that I started to write music. Almost from my first lessons, she asked me to write a piece every week, often using very simple titles and even if I don't remember exactly what the result was, it must have sounded like atmospheric music. It lasted until I was nine years old then around fifteen or sixteen I studied with Caecilia Andriessen who was the sister of Louis Andriessen (dutch composer who died in 2021). She immediately showed me that I could do anything I wanted with a piano, such as playing with my forearms on the keys, which completely opened up my perception of the relationship between a musician and her instrument, of the causality between the gesture of an action and the sound produced. I continued to explore in this way until the end of high school and then I entered a composition class in The Hague and later in Berlin.
One day I came across a CD I had borrowed from the library by chance: "Aus den sieben Tagen" by Karlheinz Stockhausen, and my reaction was something like: "wow, this is a different world" (laughs).
I was fascinated by the nature of the sounds I was hearing, which were not only instrumental but also noisy. Much later I discovered the score that only gives simple instructions, and this was a shock to everything I knew, as I had only heard of traditional notation.
Do you still have a trace of these early works?
Yes, I still have a pile of old scores that are stored somewhere in my studio, but at the age of twenty five, I stopped writing for traditional instruments. Hearing sirens (2007 for portable speakers), Groene Ruis (2007 for a box tree and a hair dryer) or In blik (2008 for tin cans and electronics) are the first pieces I composed for objects. These objects interested me and I wanted to put them on stage, to compose for them, to make them sound.
How does one go from an instrumental piece to Hearing Sirens ? What was the intellectual and personal journey that took you from instrumental classical music to performance art ?
When I entered the Conservatory of The Hague, I was already interested in electronic music. I had written my first mixed work for clarinet and live electronics in which I used for the first time the MAX/MSP software that had just been launched a few years ago, so around 1999. I had both an interest for the theatrical part of the music and also the desire to tackle everything that concerned electronic music: recording sounds, sampling them, manipulating them, transforming them...
For Hearing Sirens, the idea came from an old piece I had composed in 2003 for loudspeakers placed on the backs of performers, but I wanted to give it a new life, and that's when the idea of building these sirens came up, and that brought a whole series of questions that went beyond those concerning musical composition: how to paint these sirens, what would be the color: in short, everything that had to do with scenography...
You evolve in different constellations: you are at the same time a composer, a performer, a sound artist. Do you feel you belong to one category rather than another?
I don't feel like I belong to any one category, in fact if you zoom in on a single category, you'll see that there are an infinite number of ways to do things, and conversely, that a similar approach can be used between artists of different practices.
For a short period of time, I studied art history because I wanted to orient my work towards more transdiciplinarity, which allowed me to analyze a lot of artistic practices. I often visited the studios of artist friends and observed their ways of working (which were very different from each other) but I also discussed with them what they considered a work of art and the form it could take: for example the concept of series in painting, where the artist paints the same picture over and over again, is extremely widespread, something unimaginable in music. Imagine what it would be like if a composer wrote the same piece over and over again... I like to take this type of concept and translate it into my work.
This type of approach allows me to deepen my own practice, and my themes without making the same piece but rather seeing them as two sides of a canvas. I also find this effect in performance art where a performance will never be exactly the same from one version to another. It is always possible to make the piece evolve by slightly modifying certain movements. Without to mention the fact that technology forces us to rework the electronic part to make it compatible with the operating systems and this is the moment when I also want to add or modify certain elements.
You perform your works yourself but you also let other performers take over your pieces. What is your reaction when you discover their performances?
I usually like the versions that are not mine much more (laughs). I like it when other artists take over my pieces, just because I like to see my work from another point of view and another result, even if it is different from what I had imagined. I like to discover other interpretations and see how other performers propose a different reading that I would not have thought of. It also allows me to analyze my own work with an outside eye even though I also like to be on stage. I think that my music lends itself more easily to very personal interpretations. However, I sometimes set limits: someone once asked me if he could paint a face on the mask of Song no 3, that was going too far.
Because of the variety in your work, your profile reminds me a lot of Alvin Lucier (american composer, pioneer of the experimental world, who died on December 1st 2021). Like you, he composed and performed his own works while touching on all kinds of genres.
His influence was very important to me. One of the first pieces I heard in The Hague was Nothing is Real. I really liked the idea of taking an existing piece of music (in this case, a Beatles song) and making a new piece of music out of it: through this teapot where a speaker is placed inside, Lucier does not create the original music but offers a reinterpretation of it. Since then I have followed his work closely and he has become an important source of inspiration. I like the fact that he asks for something very simple but strict at the same time, sometimes only one instruction but the result is extremely complex and presents a multitude of things to listen to like in the piece In Memoriam Jon Higgins for clarinet and slow sweep pure wave oscillator where the principle is always the same: the oscillator operates a slow glissando while the clarinet plays long sustained notes. One hears different acoustic beats produced by the greater or lesser difference between the notes of the two instruments. It opens up a fantastic and complex sound world.
Another figure that was important for me was Dick Raaijmakers, because he evolves in very different artistic fields: sculpture, literature, electronic music. Also I was inspired by the way he treats a subject in depth through several mediums.
The discovery of Lucier and Raaijmakers took place late, in the early 2000's and I also remember being marked by a sentence of Hugh Seymour Davies (british artist who designed these instruments himself): "everyone has their ideal instruments but some haven't found them yet". This was the opposite of what I had been taught, that you had to master your instrument at your fingertips, whereas Hugh S. Davies was exploring every day with bits of metal and contact microphones. It certainly made me realize that something different than what I was being taught was possible.
One difference I see with Alvin Lucier would be the fact that you offer a multitude of points of view to your set-up/installation, almost using a narrative line (where Lucier insists on a single point of view but that alone will produce much more than just understanding what is going on).
Indeed, I use narrative lines because it allows me to show the set-up from another point of view. Most of the time I try to listen to my device from another perspective. The same movement can be connected to a first sound and then to a second, a third etc.: for example in Groene Ruis, it is always the box tree that is the main object but the associated sounds change throughout the piece. I work a lot on the relationship between movement and sound and how sound can change our reading of a single action. Also in In Paradisum (2019 for performer, apple and electronic device), the idea was to take the simplest action in the world (eating and chewing an apple) but give it a variation of interpretation by associating it with different types of sounds. It remains a completely abstract and non-naturalistic association.
One of the characteristics of your work is the use of everyday objects. I don't think I'm wrong in saying that you don't choose these objects for their acoustic potential in the way that an experimental musician might do. How do you choose these objects and according to which parameters?
In general I am more interested in the actions than in the objects themselves. I never think "let's write a piece for an everyday object".
For the piece Empty Chairs (2018 for three chairs, sensors and electronics) I certainly wanted to work with chairs but during the composition process I was almost not interested in the sound they produce. Chairs have been used many times in different arts (dance in particular) and what interests me is the creation of spaces and situations that arise by positioning chairs differently (side by side, face to face, in a circle...).
For In Paradisum (2019 for performer, apple and electronic device), I first had the idea to eat a carrot (laughs) and well…the idea of eating a carrot on a loop on stage quickly seemed stupid to me and I thought that an apple would seem a bit more serious.
Recently, many ensembles have been commissioning you to create a work, even though you have always performed your own works based on your research. How do you feel about this situation?
To tell the truth, I first started writing music for others, even so-called performative pieces like Hearing Sirens. The first time that I "had" to perform it myself was because I was selected for a call for projects and the organizers wanted me to perform. And that's how it started.
Some ensembles wanted me to write instrumental pieces for them, but I don't want to go back to that anymore, all that is behind me. Others give me carte blanche and it's definitely a completely different process than working alone in your studio. In any case, I always ask for a working time with the musicians a few months before the concert to see what they have to propose, in fact it is a collaboration. Just like with the Collegium Novum Zürich, where this working time was precious because the musicians proposed other movements that I had not thought of, while giving their opinion on the electronic part.
I would like to talk about the piece Words, words, words that you composed for five members of the Collegium Novum Zürich. The piece has a real link with an earlier piece Song no3 (2010 for performer, gestures and electronic device).
I had been wanting to write an extension of Song no3 for several performers on stage for several years. But when I started working on the piece, I quickly saw that the piece would be completely different, and even if there is a certain similarity in the movements, the electronic part is completely different. My way of composing electronics is constantly evolving because I like to research different ways to deal with sounds. I teach a lot, and preparing lessons also gives new ideas.
In words, words, words you can hear some murmurs, some repeating patterns but I didn't want the electronic part to sound like a speech or to imitate the spoken language. On the contrary, I preferred to play on the opposition between what we see, that is to say characters wearing a microphone on their face and purely synthetic sounds.
What are your next projects or research themes?
When in 2017 I finished my book "Between Air and Electricity" dealing with the theme of "microphone and speakers as instruments", I didn't realize how much of a framework it had been in my life. After its publication, I finally realized that I could do something else.
At the moment I am working a lot on the theme of gestures, sensors and sounds and this research could take different forms maybe even in the form of a book: I am trying to answer the question "what kind of gestures do we make nowadays to make music, especially with all the possibilities given by using electronics", and all the works we have talked about are a kind of answer to this question. My work also includes a lot of research and documentation and I get a lot of joy out of learning from other artists and discovering other pieces that deal with this subject.
I am also finishing a sound installation in the Saint Martin church in Kassel (Germany). Unlike my previous installations, this one will not be interactive. I worked with the members of the church choir and asked them what the typical sounds of Kassel would be. I made a lot of recordings from their testimonies and then programmed a generative part where the computer will produce in real time synthetic sounds from the sampled sounds. All this will be diffused through eight speakers placed in the church. The idea being to transport the sounds of the city in this immense place.