The music that Bora Yoon makes is cinematic, dreamlike, and it bypasses the cognizant brainlobes and enters somewhere deeper. You feel it almost before it reaches your ears.
One of several visiting artists during this week’s Pulse: Art and Technology Festival, the New York–based Yoon is an experimental musician and performance artist. What she creates – live onstage, using her voice, viola, a tape–looping system and an assortment of instruments both percussive and primarily technological – is a technicolor otherwordly soundscape.
Saturday’s performance of her piece ( (( PHONATION )) ) (“an interdisciplinary song cycle of ambient electro–acoustic soundscapes, using voice, electrified viola, turntable, Tibetan singing bowls, radios, water, metronomes, music boxes, homemade instruments, and electronics)” takes place in the rotunda of the Telfair Academy. It’ll be just the sort of thing that illuminates and defines Pulse’s mission statement, which is to present contemporary creativity in its manifest forms.
Yoon’s collaborator on the piece is visual artist Luke DuBois, using Jitter, a video software he created.
“It’s a live camera feed from the performance,” Yoon explains, “and he processes it in this software. It is motion–reactive as well as sound–reactive, and so it creates kind of this seamless audio–visual environment.
“It plays with scale and perspective at a neat angle, so that it kind of augments the dreamlike quality of seeing something, but not seeing something. Or just the different ways in which you see things. He kind of riffs on that visually.”
We spoke with Yoon about her music.
Once upon a time, you were a classical composer. You were also a folksinger. Can you describe your attraction to, and your ascent into, the world of sound, noise and electronics?
Bora Yoon: If anything, it wasn’t an ascent, it was more like a deconstruction of everything. Of learning all the classical stuff – having all the nuts and bolts and theory in place. But then also the appreciation for the song; when you strip away all the class and the status, when the song can just break out of itself and just be a song. That’s kind of where the folksinger in me came out. Then I moved to New York and kind of realized how incredibly unoriginal being a singer/songwriter was.
The experimental stuff started more with trying to get away from that horrible, non–descriptive word that ‘singer/songwriter’ is. That doesn’t honor the individual, I feel. I kind of just stripped away the words, because that’s what took the longest – the music always came easily, and that’s what I feel like is the core of where the classical composition came from.
Then I just got a pickup and put it on everything I owned, and got a loop and just started mucking around. So a lot of this stuff, really, is just songs without words. It’s amazing to me how differently the world perceives a song without something there. Without words there, it all of a sudden becomes sound, and then when you start thinking about sound, it opens itself up to that realm of sound design – why do things mean what they mean? Or why do we have certain reactions when we hear certain sounds? Then you can start to make ironic or resonant pairings, of what kind of sounds may go together, or be really jarring together. It goes to that cinematic artistic zone.
From there, it’s a lot of fun – it’s like really indirect storytelling, via sound. I feel like it’s kind of radio foley, it’s kind of sound design, and it’s kind of music.
How important was it to you when you found the loops and the other technology of it?
Bora Yoon: It’s really liberating, because it makes you autonomous in a way. First, I started playing and singing violin, at the same time, because it was just an easy way to hear what I wrote as a choral composer. Without having to get another person! When I found the loops I was like ‘This is fantastic. I can lay down certain ideas.’ From there, you riff on that, harmonically. At first it started out of necessity – it was easier to hear what I had in my brain without having to ... schedule.
I feel that the experiment box, if anything, has deconstructed everything I’ve known to a sound level.
I feel like I’ve gone way left now, and I have to return to the middle somehow. There has to be a pith of narrative, too – that’s why some text is coming back into the soundscapes. I’m starting to use text in a way that’s not as literal as being a songwriter, almost how Laurie Anderson uses prose well–placed.
How much of it is composed, and how much is improvised or adapted because of your circumstances – the way you feel that night, or the room?
Bora Yoon: All of these compositions exist – going into it, they’re like 75 percent in place. And then I always leave the other quarter for the spontaneity of the moment. Really, that’s what performance is, the energy of the room and where you are. And what time of day it is. I kind of realized early on that my music is not day music. And outdoor festivals, hell no! But like 3 a.m., or weird hours, I feel like that’s kind of where it lives.
They’re really defined by their instrumentation. I know what order they come in, and the general contour of everything. But I do leave up to the moment how the contour builds, because I think that is, in a way, moment–specific. The piece lives, but you do want it to breathe, and you do want it to have some flexibility. Because there’s nothing worse than in my singer/songwriter days, when I had a set list, and I was going to stick to that set list. It’s always good to have some flexibility because sometimes you never know where a crowd is, and you have to be flexible enough to work with it. Otherwise it really does come off too square ... you know when it doesn’t fit.
If you have feedback, you can’t do anything about it. You might as well harmonize with it. If feedback’s in your loop, well, it’s a pitch and you gotta work with it. And that’s all music.
Did I read that you have perfect pitch?
Bora Yoon: Yeah, well, perfect pitch is to know what pitch it is without a reference. For me, that just means that any sound has the ability to become music. If you just think about what tonal quality it has. A percussionist would know what I mean.
And at the same time, how you interface with it is also kind of theatrical to play with, which is fun. And that’s where the next step goes to.
I feel like looping kind of creates a moving meditation of some kind. It starts to lay down a little rhythm, or foundation. How you play with that counter–rhythm, that’s how you get to that nice synergistic place where you don’t feel like you’re here ... it’s a melding of things ... that synergy is what starts the dream logic of things.
What I’m working on now is also like how it’s presented. The theatricality of how these instruments are played starts to create ... kind of a cooking show! I realized ‘Oh, it’s kind of like a weird, automated, found cooking show! That takes place in some Emily Dickinson kitchen.’
Do you hear music, as you move through your day, everywhere and in everything? The sound of human voices passing you on the sidewalk?
Bora Yoon: I often don’t listen to my iPod, even though I do enjoy it when I get there. I find natural noises entertaining enough, especially in New York. It’s everywhere.
Sometime I nerd out, too. The subway always beeps in C. And with ‘Plinko,’ which is my cell phone song, I had started to notice that electronics and things all beep in the key of C. Because that seems to be the norm. And that’s how some things start: ‘These chimes that I have are in E. What do they go with?’
And trying to tune things to other things, finding a family of sounds that seem to be in the same key. Some white sound that seems to make some ironic sense with it. And then what gets sung on top of it is, I feel, the core of the song.
I think many musicians are afraid of space – they always feel they have to fill it, like dead air. People like yourself use the space as part of the music. What kind of a learning process was this?
Bora Yoon: I think space becomes known the more you go into sound. You have to always deal with it. It’s not apparent at first, because the song is what you’re building, but it’s also something you’re growing within a box. How to use that box became something ...
I’m a choral singer, too. Choral music is my first love. ‘I sing at church on Sundays, and Jesus buys my beer.’ Choral music has always been where my heart is, when I hear music. Singing in churches, or in neat acoustic halls, and stairwells, they’ve always been enchanting to me. Those are the things that I get drawn to.
The appreciation for different acoustics started as a choral singer, I think. Going more into sound made me appreciate more how sound design can be constructed in a way to make you feel something. If it’s intentionally miked up close, to almost make a tangible sound but it’s intangible.
Starting to understand the visceral sound that you can get when you really get into a recording, which is very different than when you hear something live, which is in a hall, which is in a box. So how to use that full dynamic range of where to take people, going super–super–in and miniscule with sound. And also being able to go super–spatial with sound, that’s what I think ( (( PHONATION )) ) is about ... sound’s dynamic quality to be spatial as well as incredibly inward – almost tactile, and bodily, too.
Pulse: Bora Yoon performance (with Luke DuBois)
Where: Telfair Academy Rotunda, 121 Barnard St.
When: At 6 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 22
Artist’s Web site: borayoon.com