David Newman is carving out a role for himself in a niche where less is decidedly more.
He founded the well regarded Audiobulb label, and recently released work on North American minimalist powerhouse 12k. It should come as little surprise that Newman, a clinical psychologist by day, chose the name Autistici to reference his obsessive interest in sound.
“I work with people who have learning disabilities who require support due to issues of mental health, risk or challenging behaviour,” says Newman.
Through his work, Newman says, he has come into contact with many sufferers of autism spectrum disorder, a condition that inspired him to take the name Autistici.
“Theirs is a unique life view that should be valued,” he says.
“It challenges us to stop, re-evaluate, and come to terms with the fact that people can experience the same world very differently.”
According to Newman, his obsessive interest in sound mirrors some aspects of the disorder.
“Akin to someone who has ASD, I have my own disorders including a hypersensitivity to noise and an intense special interest in the interplay between sound and silence.”
“Perhaps the name Autistici embodies my own ‘disorder’ and the channel I have developed for its expression.”
Long fascinated by background sounds and the limits of perception, Newman’s 12k album Volume Objects is a study in controlled expression, with tracks like “Heated Dust On Sunlit Window’ and “Broken Guitar Discarded Violin’ presenting an undulating meditation on silence, perception and the listening environment.
“I am fascinated by the fact that the same sound can bring confusion to one person and clarity to another,” Newman explains, noting that the way sounds act on the listener is one of his primary interests.
“I’m interested in not just what sound is but what sound does,” he says.
“For me, sound has the power to provoke strong internal states such as wonderment, anxiety, joy or peacefulness.
“I guess I enjoy evoking and playing with these states.”
The album, which has been well received by critics, came out of a show 12k boss Richard Chartier did in Newman’s home town of Sheffield.
“He had been playing a set of beautiful minimal tones in an old warehouse building in the centre of Sheffield,” explains Newman.
“I gave him a copy of my music and asked him to listen and give me feedback.”
The rest as they say is history, with Newman contributing to a 12k compilation Blueprints shortly after.
“The compilation was well received and gave [12k] and myself a platform to discuss a full release,” he says.
Although not as minimal as Chartier’s work, Newman maintains a strong focus on the importance of listening.
“I have always been fascinated by the role of human perception,” he states.
“Each track [on Volume Objects]represents a honed narrative developed through the placement of sound, silence, and dynamic interaction.”
“It started with me obsessing on an audio element of interest, weighing up its form, function, and impact on my psyche.”
In his work, Newman claims to explore both the development and destruction of sound, an approach well illustrated by the nine-minute long “Wire Cage For Tiny Birds,’ which leisurely makes its way through many repetitions of the same series of piano notes before dissolving into a light sprinkling of electrical rain.
“I am interested in the manner in which material is conceived, gestated and developed, as well as the manner in which it disintegrates and decomposes,” Newman says.
Quiet sounds are crucial to such an emphasis and Volume Objects is replete with tracks that slowly swell, only to drain away to near silence.
“In my view it is the listener who occupies the position of the final ‘active element’s in a track,” Newman says, noting everything from the listener’ psychological state to the dynamics of the listening environment can impact on the final “meaning’ of any audio piece.
“It is people beyond computers who determine what is ‘heard,’ he declares, expressing his fascination for our ability to tune out certain noises while isolating others.
“What is filtered in or out, the external environment in which [the listener]listens all contribute to the perception of the material.
“I am aware that different people will make sense of the same experience in different ways. Furthermore, the same person may make sense of the same material presented at different times in different ways.”
When performing live, Newman say he pays particular attention to both the audience and the listening space.
“I try to understand the mood of the room.”
In a live context, the audience is part of the set; their noises, their talking, their drinking glasses become part of the audio field.
“Sometimes I like to fade in a mic input that is recording the audience.”
“By increasing the volume to the point where the output from the PA is amplifying the audience, a meta-performance with feedback from the field takes place, and the boundary between performer and audience is blurred.”
This is an approach well suited to 12k/Line, where Chartier has long made clear his admiration for the work of the minimalist visual artists of the 1960s, with their insistence on perception and the importance of subjectivity in the production of meaning.
With releases, Newman’s included, which are heavily skewed towards the edges of our perceptual range, 12k has presented an ongoing meditation on the agency of the listener in relation to audio work, in a way which exemplifies Barthes’ insistence that meaning is “eternally written here and now.”
Even from an early age, Newman said he has been preoccupied with noise and music.
“I have always been fascinated by sound – listening to music, learning the piano, and recording the birds in the garden.”
“My first recordings took place when I was 12-years-old, before I had encountered four-track recorders. I would spend hours playing recorded sounds through the home hi-fi whilst mic-ing up an instrument to record a new layer of sound on to tape.”
“At that age, I had no reference to musicians working with abstract sound. All I knew was that I found the process and outcome compelling.”
Recording has remained a central part of Newman’s sonic practice, although these days he has swapped the tape player for a mini disc.
“I use microphones and digital recorders to capture field recordings, acoustic instruments and concrete objects,” he explains. “I also work with a number of hardware and software synths.”
Despite the use of hardware and audio material gathered from the field, Newman says the computer has remained critical to his practice.
“Much of my work is done on a computer. It’s a place where I organise, archive, develop, arrange and transform sounds,” he says.
“The computer is a wonderful tool. It enables someone like me to focus in on a tiny element of audio, to accentuate it, amplify it, and change it through pitch, time, effects, compression dynamics, and stereo field.”
“Once you have mastered how to manipulate sound through these tools, there is no sound or near silence that is beyond creation.”
Given his preference for small sounds, and subtle effects, it should come as no surprise Newman favours the microfocus offered by editing program Soundforge, arranging the final results with Cubase SX.
Throughout the creative process, Newman says he returns again and again to the idea of play.
“That is the key activity,” he says.
“Like a child with paint or clay – you start with nothing and you become focussed on a colour, a form and tool of sculpture.”
“It starts with a sound, its form and function laid bare.”
“I let it play repeatedly and respond to the emotions it conjures within me. You wonder what it can do, where it can be taken.”
By immersing himself in the material, Newman says he is searching for a moment of resolution.
“I find the process both exhilarating and cathartic,” he says.
“There is a sense that something is being resolved within me as I manipulate the sounds to form a cohesive narrative.”
Newman brings this emphasis on careful listening and cohesion to his own label Audiobulb.
“There is a lot of diversity within Audiobulb, including the MP3 and CD releases, the open access projects such as Root of Sine and Endless Endless, the random image galleries and the development of bespoke VSTis and audio hardware units.”
“Audiobulb is a place where people come to actively get involved, as well as to listen, buy and interact with our material.”
Launched in 2003, the label slowly built a strong reputation, with releases by Ultre, Newman and the Favourite Places compilation generating positive reviews.
“The core motivation for starting the label came from my desire to support, promote and develop new music,” Newman explains.
“I have always been an avid music fan and had spent several years discovering new music via the internet, moving from established labels to community websites to little known artist sites.
“I found myself listening and returning to certain artists’ work again and again. I found myself wondering why they had not been picked up, released and nurtured by a label.”
“At that stage, I was listening to works by Henry Leo Duclos (Gulo Gulo), He Can Jog, Diagram of Suburban Chaos and Disastro. Through listening and contacting the artists, it was clear to me that each artist was spending hours and days crafting their sound and sculpting detailed, beautiful and personally meaningful music.”