Will Owen is a sound composer, curator, and artist who explores the capacity that sound art has to engage communities. His installation and sound works have been seen internationally. His work addresses the way people interact with space and uses everyday sounds to create works of art.
Describe your work in 1-2 sentences.
I'm primarily interested in the basic need of others-- I explore this theme through participatory installations using sound, experience design, and food. My work is interactive and requires participation of the audience for the works to be complete.
For this interview, I'm going to focus primarily on your sound-related work, although you work as a visual artist, as well as a curator. How did you initially come across working in sound?
I grew up playing music in a bluegrass band and a few punk bands and then became more serious about music as I got older and studied music as well as fine art in university. Additionally, my first job when I was 14 was setting up and installing PA systems each weekend and that's when I learned basics about audio engineering, speaker position, and equalizing. Sound, whether harmonic in nature or not, has been a part of my life since I was young. I also began working more seriously creating visual art in my later teenage years up until now and naturally when I was thinking of certain projects, sound was a way to engage my various interests into one project.
Your most recent sound art piece was called "Crossfade Commute", which was an interactive piece made from the Copenhagen Metro System where commuters can create a shared soundtrack corresponding with specific stops. What was your experience making this work? How was it trying to create a location-specific work using sound? What challenges did you run into and how did your ideas of Copenhagen change after creating this work?
It was an incredibly exciting project, the largest I had ever created and was part of the Copenhagen Art Week 2015. I was invited as a participating international artist by the curators of CPH Art Week: Matthias Borello and Charlotte Bagger Brandt. It was a true pleasure to work with them and Charlotte in particular spent a lot of time and effort setting up communication with the Metro-- I'm forever indebted to her! I had to shout out my thanks before moving on.
Here's a quick description of the piece for context:
Crossfade Commute is created for Copenhagen Art Week 2015 and the inspiring theme of Shared Spaces. Using a website, CrossfadeCommute.com commuters on the CPH Metro are able to create a soundtrack from streaming audio that aligns with the starts and stops at each station.
Being inspired by the sounds created while bicycling around Copenhagen, I wanted to try and replicate the way bike commuters create their own rhythm and interact with the sounds of the city while traveling.
Crossfade Commute allows travelers to play audio by themselves through headphones or aloud on speaker phone with others. Essentially allowing the passengers to become composers depending on the audio link they choose.
There are three audio paths to choose from:
MELODY DRONE & CITY SOUNDS
Each are distinct and have a different interpretation of the stations and their environments.
The stations themselves also have specific audio that will match with the streaming audio from the passengers' phones.
The City Sounds are field recordings made from various locations around the stations:
For example at Øresund station you hear the sounds of a sauna being used or in Vestamager you hear both the sound of construction and nocturnal insects from the amazing natural surroundings.
There is recordings using a hydrophone from underwater in the ocean, children splashing, and sea swimmers around Amager Strand - Katrup.
At Lufthavnen, it's the sound of people re-uniting at the airport at 3 am on a Sunday as well as 6 am business people commuting in from all over the world.
There was audio in the metro stations as well as streaming audio available to play from each commuter's mobile device (there is excellent data coverage underground in Copenhagen) Because the metro system in Copenhagen is automatic meaning there is no physical driver, the precision of the timing between stations is almost exact during each trip. I designed representational sounds for each station and your journey between them along the way.
It was amazing to reach out to a large institution like a metro system and for them to even respond and be open to the possibility of a project with so many variables. There were a lot of meetings and the project originally had a much larger scope of having audio on the trains themselves, but it was reduced and distilled, but all of it is still exciting to me, no matter the shifts that the project went through.
The biggest challenge for me during this project was time, I was spending a few months in Copenhagen riding the subway, recording the times between each station to get the average time over about 60 rides. I then walked around each neighborhood listening to sounds that I thought would represent a neighborhood based on my short term observations as well as do small informal interviews with residents about what they think represents the neighborhood.
By the end I had an huge amount of audio to mix into the compositions, which took time to mix and master about two and a half hours of audio. Then upload them all to be available for streaming audio. I was uploading audio for 3 consecutive days before the opening, it was wild and I was quite sleep deprived, but it was great and I learned an incredible amount about mixing audio, mastering, uploading large files, and taking tiny naps throughout the process. Another shout out is due to my friends Jenny and Matthias in Copenhagen for letting me use their super fast wifi! So even though I had planned out everything to be on time, I was still sprinting waiting for upload speed-- a constraint I hadn't fully realized when I outlined my work timeline. I definitely won't make that mistake again, but it was important for the project not to be an app that must be downloaded, but instead I felt it should be quickly accessible and streaming, so people don't have to spend their time and data downloading an app.
My perception of Copenhagen changed dramatically through the process. I had never been there before, didn't know very much about the place, and I only knew 2 people. Upon initial cursory glance, Copenhagen is a beautiful, northern European city. It is more beautiful beautiful to me now and I also see how well the social infrastructure works on various levels of social class, but also some shortcomings as far as it being a homogenous society-- the US has similar issues as well of xenophobia and intense immigration law for asylum seekers. However, I was spending hours and days wandering around listening and observing different neighborhoods all over the city at different times of day. I had the privilege of having the time and space to absorb my surroundings-- to make small discoveries in each area and so, of course, I fell totally in love with the city and all the nuances of each neighborhood. It's a fantastic city.
You can see more about the project and listen to the audio works at the original website.
Your work often seems to engage the community. Do you think that sound has the ability to connect with communities in that other mediums can't?
I'm not sure that it has any more ability to connect with communities compared to other mediums, but it does have the ability to capture people's voices and own interpretation in their own words / representations. I live and work part time in Philadelphia where I've heard there are more murals per capita than any other US city. Many of the murals are representational of various people or places in their respective neighborhoods, but often are stylized portraits or interpretations. With sound there is the opportunity to have people's own voices, or audio from their vantages. Which is exciting to me, invaluable really, and allows people to actually have their own voice within a project that is engaging with specific communities. A similar argument could be made for other mediums as well, but as we are in the golden age of podcasts there might be a cultural shift towards listening deeper or more critically
Who/what are your influences? Has anything been on your mind recently that you want to share?
I've been interested in Haitian Rara music recently having heard it from a Haitian musician friend of mine in Philadelphia. It's performed in medium to large groups of horn players, who each play one or two notes and various percussion. They play incredibly complex constellations of poly-rhythmic melodies that, by design are also physically spacial-- each person playing one or two tones in a large group, almost like a handbell choir, each person only playing a few notes in a large group of people. It's helped me to think about sound as a physical space and how that space can be filled or not. I've been spending a lot of time on YouTube looking at videos, which of course don't convey the fullness of the sounds.
I'm also really inspired by my friend Nadia Botello, who is a fantastic sound artist formerly based in Philadelphia now in Los Angeles her work with using water as an auditory conduit is fantastic.
Recently I've been working with Zeena Parkins helping out with some graphic design for a project that she's working on and every time we are working, I take notes on all the people she mentions-- I leave with a long list of incredible folks to look up, which is deeply influential.
I recently read a book "Style of Attack Report" by a science fiction collective in Philadelphia called Metropolarity. They use the medium of science fiction to discuss and dissect the intersectionality of class, race, sexuality, contemporary cities, and gender. It is fascinating and I highly recommend it.
I'm also going back to again to fully appreciate Pauline Oliveros and her incredible work and deep listening techniques are inclusive, priceless and immortal.
Why do you make sound? In your mind, what can sound communicate?
I, like many folks in my generation, have a fairly short attention span. I've jumped around with what I'm interested in for many years and have had more than a few life trajectory changes, however, my interest in music and sound hasn't ebbed. I still get whole body chill bumps when I'm exposed to someone's sound project that I really connect with or I hear a music that thrills me and feels new. That will perpetually be life giving and I've just realized that in the last few years, I can't shake it.
Sound also has this specific way of directly tunneling back to other times in life, and can link to memories, much like the other senses, but sound is most powerful for me. For example, when I hear a specific bird call, the american gold finch, that I first heard at my grandparents house when I was 6, I immediately think about eating cornbread on their back porch-- memories that I have from that place and time, which are visual and auditory based memories. All the senses are connected, but for me sound is the number one trigger.