Byron Westbrook is an artist and composer based in Los Angeles, CA. He works with both music performance and installation formats, with a focus on architectural qualities of sound. For some time he also worked alongside Phil Niblock to produce, record and archive concerts. While Westbrook’s field recording process has been central for many years to both his composition and installation works, there has yet to be a major release showcasing this aspect of his artistic practice. Ash Internal have rectified this with his new album Mirror Views which features cassette field recordings and “faked” synthesizer binaural environments created from noise and unstable tones. We were quite taken with Mirror Views, particularly its use of the stereo field, unexpected compositional decisions and unique ability to integrate sounds from your own listening environment into his recorded pieces, thus playing tricks on your perception. He kindly made a mix for us recently, which you can find here, but we needed to know more so we reached out to him via email.
Cyclic Defrost: Do you draw a distinction between music and sound?
Byron Westbrook: For me, the difference is in utility and framing. The sound of a car horn on the street letting me know to get out of the way wouldn’t read as music in that moment, but on a recording where the car horn is placed in a musical listening context as part of a composition – that’s a musical framing and arguably a different utility, even if ambiguous.
Cyclic Defrost: Mirror Views stems from elements created in your installation Threshold Variations. Can you tell me what those audio elements are and how you used them in the installation? I’m particularly interested in the idea of your sounds ‘coexisting with exterior sound’ though also intrigued what you mean by ‘perception of presence both real and imagined. ’ This notion of imagined presence, perhaps influenced by some of the other elements of the installation, the dark mirrored room and controlled lighting. I’m really interested in what you were trying to achieve.
Byron Westbrook: One of the main things I envisioned when conceiving the installation was that it would be sounds played back at very low volume in a dark room. The space I chose was a large ground floor dance studio in lower Manhattan that had a lot of audible street noise. There was a 6-channel sound system surrounding the audience and a mixture of coloured theatre lights and spotlights programmed to change gradually through the sequence of audio. The lighting was kept at a very low level to heighten auditory senses, to emphasise the listening element and to obscure a defined sense of surrounding audience. The “Threshold” aspect of that title refers to the low volume of light and sound that one might be straining to hear/see through. And interestingly – related to my earlier point of reference – there were a lot of car horns audible from outside! So in this instance, I suppose you could say that real car horns were part of the music, mixed in with my own sounds.
Cyclic Defrost: Can you tell me about the cassette field recordings you made. Where were you? Why cassette? What do you find yourself attracted to when doing field recording? And what is the significance of the solar eclipse? Do you think it alters sound?
Byron Westbrook: There are a variety of field recordings from a few locations, though a large portion is from when I specifically went out to a park bordering the Long Island Sound to experience the eclipse, which I didn’t watch – I just observed animals, scenery and changing light while recording. There are other recordings from shortly before and after, some in the city, and another is from the Rhode Island coast.
Regarding the choice of cassette as recording medium, I had recently picked up a Sony Walkman Pro recorder, which I think was a device created to make higher fidelity bootlegs with binaural mics. This recorder in particular seems to be able to record outdoors with less dynamic range but retaining a depth of field where it sounds more like what is heard to me than a digital recorder. Digital seems to record what’s there more accurately but it doesn’t sound the way your mind processes it while physically in a place. I’m also a big fan of film cameras and my attraction to that is similar.. I often feel that high-res digital gives us too much detail to be able to access the way our mind would process the experience if we were physically present. I think an incomplete picture that presents less information can translate as more real in terms of perception, via mental interpolation or imagination.
In regard to my field recording process, I’m interested in documenting my attention and in dynamics of listening and perspective. Also, with these recordings in particular I wanted to capture a sense of time passing, which is why it’s a work that needs a focused listening environment and a long running time format for a recorded release.
In regard to the eclipse and how that affected sound, the main thing I observed was that a lot of the creatures seemed to be paying attention to the eclipse, silently. It was often more like recording at 4am, when the environment goes most silent.
Cyclic Defrost: How have you altered the recordings for Mirror Views? Why did you feel the need to rework them? What do you see as the major difference?
Byron Westbrook: I re-mixed the recordings in stereo, simulating some of the dispersion elements of the 6-channel system, but I also tried to restructure and optimise it for a 2-channel orientation. There were some passages that just didn’t make sense when taken out of the installation space, so I removed about 20 minutes. These were mostly ideas that were more connected to the lighting or multichannel setup to be effective. It’s really a different experience and a different work in the end, hence the different title.
Cyclic Defrost: How would you describe your approach to working with field recordings and synth? You don’t particularly seem to be into drama with abrupt cuts or violent ramps. How do you go about working out where things fit together? Is it important to you to avoid known tropes of electroacoustic music? What makes you want to meld them?
Byron Westbrook: I like for there to be something tonal that emerges or disappears – this always feels grounding in a way, as if it helps guide the listener’s attention and understanding of the environment, offering some sort of relativity or constant. I think there’s something to human attention that functions best when seeing things in contrast and either adding a tonal synth element or finding something in an environment that performs that function goes a long way, even if subtle.
The little/no sound design approach was a conscious choice for this piece. I do have other works that make heavy use of abrupt cuts, but this piece was intended to be nearly all gradual, and very low drama.
In terms of composition, I just gather the materials that I expect might relate and then layer and edit them with trial and error. There is a lot of precision in the process to get pacing right.
In regard to electroacoustic music tropes, I think I have a really hard time staying in the box even if I try hard. For the most part, if I find myself gravitating towards something that feels like traditional, often-treaded language, I end up contextualising it in a way that deviates from the typical use, but this is less of a conscious effort.
Cyclic Defrost: To what extent do you feel like you compose? Can you tell me how you approached composition and what was important in the way you structured Mirror Views?
Byron Westbrook: This is highly composed in terms of considering a form, an arc and a sense of design. Process-wise, I had three folders of sounds: Synth Tones, Field Recordings, Fake Field Recordings (made with synth). I worked with superimpositions to find combinations that felt symbiotic or fraternal. (So this is thinking vertically) and then I had specific passages in mind that I wanted to happen with time between them (this is thinking horizontally) and I built out the arc from that.
The work was built from countless hours of material. I tend to make very long improvisations when I am working with synth programming,. I have releases with more concise works where ideas that were initially 30-60 minutes have been edited to 2-5 minutes. I wanted this work to have long sections that represent improvisations in real time also – which mirrors the approach to time I mentioned with field recording. In the end, to me, recording is all the same whether it’s synth or environment: It’s all a listening process and a bit of a performance as well.
Cyclic Defrost: Did you have any experience with a Buchla synthesizer prior to your residence in Stockholm? What did you learn about synthesis or Buchla machines?
Byron Westbrook: I had not used a Buchla before EMS but I was very familiar with wave-shaping oscillators, low pass gates, and the logic of the Buchla that separates control signal from audio. If anything, what I learned was just that the logic of the module and signal arrangement has a huge influence on ideas that might be generated. But I also went into the studio there with specific ideas that I had in mind from my own much smaller synth system, where I knew I could expand on those ideas with the many oscillators and higher fidelity available in the EMS Buchla.
Cyclic Defrost: You apparently stayed in a haunted house in Stockholm when you were there. Do you believe in ghosts? Apparently they only show themselves to those who believe – or so I’ve been told.
Byron Westbrook: Well I would say I believe in ghosts but I must not since I never saw it. What you say was also said to me: that one only sees if they believe.. Other people have seen it, I’ve heard. You know, I hadn’t made this connection before, but I suppose you could relate the concept of imagined presence that I was going for in the installation to the relationship I had with the ghost, which I was either imagining of feeling during the time staying in that house and making the synth work.
Cyclic Defrost: I’m really interested in the notion of “faked” synthesizer binaural environments. The question is why? As I mentioned to you my home speakers are reasonably far apart facing each other and when you stand in the middle you get a real sense of the stereo effect. You mentioned you had a similar arrangement. What is it that interests you about using the stereo field and faking in general?
Byron Westbrook: As I touched on before, I really like working with ambiguity, creating situations where the mind has to determine and fill in blanks. There is a really interesting grey area when a synthesized recording implies a sense of a real, documented space. It creates a tension around perception and imagery, and offers something potentially participatory for the listener to assess and navigate. The effect is even greater when the composition oscillates between something that is a real document and a synthetic space. It’s about creating a useful prompt that allows the listener access to something beyond my sounds.
We are symmetrical creatures (with slight error, of course) and my work uses a lot of binaural interactivity to play around with perception. I’m also interested in having an immersive dimension to recorded works so this is the best way I could possibly do this without having any control over the listening space, taking a more cognitive route.
Cyclic Defrost: Do you have any thoughts on what you consider the optimum way to listen to Reflection Noise?
Byron Westbrook: With speakers, spread as far apart as possible, at a low to medium volume, where external sounds are still audible. I don’t recommend headphones at all, that would be the least optimum listening option – the sound blending in air creates a lot of the intended effects.
Cyclic Defrost: There’s a real subtlety to your pieces that reward a kind of deep listening. I found myself continually turning the volume up – not sure if the sound of the fridge or even outside sounds of birds etc were part of the recording. Have you specifically designed the work (like your exhibition) to be open to these external sounds?
Byron Westbrook: I really like that you had that experience and that it created an uncertainty about what was and wasn’t real – that’s the work doing what it’s supposed to in terms of my intention, not that my intention has to be a rule at all.
Interestingly we mastered the recording at low volume to try to leave some space for other things in the listening space, keeping with how it would have been heard in the installation. So yes, it is open to and leaving space for external sounds.
Cyclic Defrost: You’ve worked alongside Phill Niblock for quite a number of years. I’m just wondering what you feel you took away in terms of your own approach, practice or even mindset?
Byron Westbrook: I learned from Phill that you can build a logic for compositional decisions based on superstition or intuition and that the logic will read as a truth within the work if you are consistent with it. This is slightly hard to clarify because both Phill and I are highly practical, but we both have systems that involve an element of intuition for how we make things. Mine certainly owes its development to observing his and identifying with that way of thinking. Retaining a consistency to a cracked logic makes the work yours, sort of like building the laws of physics for your own universe.
Beyond that, there’s the idea that a recording becomes complete in someone else’s playback space. Phill’s work is all about transforming a space through volume and mass of sound. I love the idea that the recording is just an impulse and that the reflection in the room is the actualisation of the work.
Cyclic Defrost: What is it about creating sound installations that continues to interest you? Is it like being a kid and making a cubby house?
Byron Westbrook: I guess this is complicated by the times we are in but I’m always interested in maintaining a thread of work that considers social components, where it differs from a concert-style listening and facing forward experience; where the presence of audience is also a factor in transforming the work and how the audience perceives it. Oddly this work we’ve been discussing is the most comforting one – my other installation works veer towards a much more anxious leaning. In the end I’d say it’s less motivated around making any sort of comfort zone.
Cyclic Defrost: Each album seems quite different. Is this a conscious decision or just evolution of interest? If so where are you heading now?
Byron Westbrook: Right yes, this is a completely conscious decision, though there is a lot of working with the subconscious as well. I’d say there’s even a bit of a psychoanalytic slant in my process, in that I try to generate a lot of recorded material performed without too much conscious consideration, look at the results from a removed perspective over time, and then build an album in a sort of filmic/world-like way out of the materials that coincide or feel related. I am less interested in branding my work with an aesthetic identity that points back at my name and more interested in generating works that feel like complete and full statements on their own. My favourite pieces tend to be ones that I would not have consciously set out to make, and this is part of my process and development that I try to stay open to.
Mirror Views is released via Ash International. You can find it here.