An Interview with Collin McKelvey


Collin McKelvey is a San Francisco based artist working with sound and video to create site specific performances. McKelvey has shown work at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, Southern Exposure, Royal Nonesuch Gallery, ATA, Human Resources, The Lab, Guerrero Gallery, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, The Geffen Center at MOCA and other artist spaces throughout the United States. His most recent release “The Nolan” can be found here.

1. Do you make a distinction between sound versus music? …and what is that distinction?

To me there is a distinction. But I would not say they are mutually exclusive. I do not think of myself as a musician. I am an artist and my explorations and studies into sound is at the forefront of what my practice entails. So making that distinction for myself, I would not say that I make music. To me “music” also has connotations to particular structures as far as popular music has been concerned throughout western culture (especially rigid when compared to other “musical” traditions throughout the world). I do not concern my self with these modes and structures. That is not to say that I do not enjoy them, they are just not my focus. I like to look at things from both a micro and macroscopic viewpoint, which leads to a pretty vast body of work.

2. I noticed an ongoing dialogue between phonography and synthesis in your work. What interests you in exploring these seemingly disparate sound sources?

This is a nice segue from what I was getting at in the previous question. As far as phonography is concerned, I think it goes far back into my childhood. I was a very observant and quiet child. I was really into watching and listening to the world around me. I think this instilled a particular lens through which I view the world today, as an artist. Phonography is the most pliant “instrument” an artist could possibly ever use, it puts the whole entirety of the world, past and present, at your fingertips. People always talk about how guitar is so expressive and synthesis is capable of producing anything, that is how I feel about phonography. I also love the unadulterated recordings made by scientists, acousticians, artists and amateurs. It was a tool of ethnographers and that led to some really seminal and beautiful snapshots of cultures and peoples that no longer exist. Which is what makes it such a great tool for capturing a specific moment in time. But just like memory, it can be shaped and manipulated. It is my favorite thing to work with as a basis for constructing a work.

Synthesis is also very important to what I do. I probably could not do (at least nearly as easily) most of what I have produced without it. Synthesis allows me to transform those recordings into something new. I have spent a lot of time with modular synthesis systems as well as computer based synthesis, and I use a combination of both. Along with some amazing circuitry and “langauge” designs by Rob Hordijk and Peter Blasser who both make complex and beautiful designs. I spent a period of time focusing on “pure” synthesis as a means of production, which lead to the Orbless “Spinning Liquid Mirror” release among some other recordings. In the end, I found that path to be too restrictive and ultimately uninspiring. I will use any tool at my disposal if it lends a quality I am looking for in a particular piece. But the ideas behind phonography and synthesis certainly form the basis of my sound practice. Just a short list of some inspiring artists utilizing phonography:

Alan Lomax, Bill Fontana, Luc Ferrari, Pierre Henry, Bernard Parmegiani, Terry Fox, Fluxus, Carl Stone, Schimpfluch-Gruppe, Jana Winderen, Douglas Quin, Baudouin Oosterlynck, Moniek Darge, Graham Lambkin, Jason Lescalleet,  Aki Onda, Chris Watson, Vanessa Rossetto, Francisco Meirino, Gerritt Wittmer, Joe Colley,Trevor Wishart, Valerio Tricoli, Kassel Jaeger,  the entire output of Droll Yankees Inc., the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

3. Two of the pieces on The Nolan were originally composed for film and/or video. How does the lack of said visuals change the way these pieces might be perceived?

I don’t really do much difference when composing something as a standalone or in the prior knowledge that it will be accompanying moving image. The approach is primarily the exact same. I feel that a lot of what I do has an affinity to experimental film and video work, so they mesh well. I also typically work with people I am friends with or have a good knowledge of their work, so there is an ease involved in so much as I am not worrying about making aesthetic choices that may not be as enjoyable to the other artist(s) involved. The two pieces on “The Nolan” once was composed for one of my own video pieces and the other was composed before the film had been finalized or even seen by me. I have also done a project in the past with the Toronto based artist Otino Corsano. He commissioned me to create a few short sound pieces that he would then use as a basis by film makers and choreographers to build pieces around. He gave me some information of what he envisioned and I worked form there. But the pieces for that project are very much my own. So for me, at least the majority of the time, the sound comes first and is my main focus. Much of my work can create a sense of place on its own.

4. What does the role of physical media play in your practice? Ie the distribution of your work on vinyl, cassette, CD? Do you have a favorite medium?

Most of my work that has been released has been relegated to cassette tape. It is a great format, with it’s own hindrances as far as length and frequency ranges are concerned. I like it. I have released work on cd as well, which is nice because you can get a good high frequency range on it and there is much less a limitation as far as length is concerned when compared to cassette or vinyl. I have also released work on vinyl, but only as 7”. For me, 7” is the most constrictive, I like to make longer form pieces that have an aspect of patience and unfolding involved. It is time based media I am working with after all. I think all the available mediums have there advantages and disadvantages. To me, everything sounds best out of my computer, through my audio interface. But my ideal choice for physical releases would be vinyl. It carries much more “weight” to it along with the size and packaging involves makes for a whole object that is desirable.

5. How do you differentiate between working under the Orbless moniker versus working under your given name?

Orbless was a bit of a transitionary period. That is when I was focusing on synthesis, mostly analog modular, as the source material. It is retired though, it’s in the past. Now I only do (solo) material under my own name. I think it is better that way. I also have a project with John Davis called IN/S that is focused on research based compositions and the usage of tape as a primary tool. I have also been involved in a few other projects throughout the years and one of them may soon be returning after almost five years.

6. Any upcoming projects you’d like to talk about?

I am currently working on a few upcoming releases. One project that has been in the works for over a year now is with the Italian composer Attilio Novellino. A sort of back and forth of found and synthesized sound which should be seeing the light of day next year on vinyl (?) through Discreetrecords.

I am also getting things together for a release from Beer on the Rug.

Perhaps 2015 will see the return of the trio GAZE, we will see.