Hearing Landscapes: An Interview With Norman W. Long

By creating sonic landscapes built around isolated communities and environments, Norman W. Long challenges listeners to consider the relationships between people and nature that exist in post-industrial urban environments where many Black and Brown communities live. Long’s earlier piece this year, Black Space in Winter, and his latest album, Black Brown Gray Green, especially configure these environmental sounds into visceral sonic contexts. His work is imaginative and challenging, an example of how familiar sounds processed and combined with unexpected elements in surprising ways can push us beyond our comfort zones and into a space where we can hear.

I talked to Norman throughout September and early October. His latest album, Black Brown Gray Green, is out now on Hausu Mountain.

What are some of your earliest memories of music and sound, whether it’s an album or an environmental sound – anything along those lines that has really stuck with you?

My earliest memories would be my reactions to thunder and going downtown Chicago for the first time when I was four years old and hearing the “el” or elevated trains. The trains were so loud and like nothing I’ve ever heard and it really frightened me.

I really love your field recordings, so I’m really curious when your interest in capturing them and working with them started and what was the main inspiration or impetus?

Thanks Brad. It was when I was getting my MFA in 2000. I was thinking about how to make work centered on memory and space. I was working with very heavy and dense material in concrete. I found working in this medium at the time was not sustainable. Parallel to that was my love of electronic, experimental, and improvised music. I was making tapes for my trips from Oakland to SF during that time. Doing those mixes became a way of extending my practice as an artist. I was had my turntable set-up and CD and would put together what I had in my collection, so I was sculpting non-linear narratives and soundscapes from Miles Davis, PITA, Lee Perry, King Tubby, Sun Ra, William Parker, Jeff Mills, Drexciya, Pan Sonic. The summer of 2000 was when I purchased a minidisc recorder along with a binaural mic to plug into it. 

Before we talk about the Hausu Mountain album, I want to ask about Black Space in Winter for a minute. In your description, you say “These recordings offer us a way to listen to communities of color by listening for the ecological, economic, and residential life that make up the community,” which I think is a really important and amazing example of the powerful way sound can bring people together and transport listeners to completely different spaces. I’m curious where the idea first came from and what the process was like, from deciding what sounds and recordings to use to presenting it as you ultimately did? 

Thanks Brad, this was a personal piece for me along with eXU-9’s Space Cadet. After a panic attack sent me to the emergency room in Oakland, CA in 2004. I knew I needed to recover from fear, anger, and frustration amassed due to years of suffering from various forms of violence, underemployment, racism, and loneliness. I remember a talk from bell hooks on recovery and mindfulness she gave somewhere in San Francisco I checked out books on mindfulness and Zen from my local library. I found walking meditation the best practice for my recovery. As a result, I felt connected, grounded to the space I sat or walked. I decided to record more of my walks and incorporate them into my performances and installations.

Over the years I have also used listening as an analytical tool to engage issues of ecological recovery, community disinvestment, cultural (African American/Latinx)history around communities of color. Soundwalks serve as an opportunity to understand communities of color, listening out for each other, listening with each other, to each other, and listening beyond ourselves as Jennifer Lynn Stoever has written in her book “The Sonic Color Line” is integral to de-colonizing listening. 

For “Black Space” I had a friend document a walk I do occasionally at Marian R. Byrnes park in my neighborhood. I did a few special things for the video, like sounding cymbals and a singing bowl marking the beginning and end of the piece. The middle part is where I do live electronics in a space that was a foundation for a house. Noise, improv, etc are also part of my creative practice so I ended the walk with a solo performance. The idea was to work with the soundscape. To reinforce the sounds I was hearing and become part of the soundscape. 

Have you been able to lead any soundwalks at Byrnes Park yet?

I led a walk there with Sara Zalek and members of the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology of the Night Out In The Parks program that the Chicago Park District puts on every year.

In the statement you wrote for this new record, you say, “African Americans experience and witness this disconnection to our environment, economy, sense of self and place. With these walks, we are brought back to our bodies, our time, and our space.” In your own experiences, how have these soundwalks and working with environmental recordings helped you with this?

My practice has helped me both accept myself and has helped me progress. Meaning that I am aware and comfortable with saying no to certain things and with saying yes to things I feel is helpful and conducive to my well-being. Having performed and listened for the past twenty years infrequently, I developed a way of working that fits into the world. My confidence, I think has grown. Or maybe I don’t care what people think of the work as much or at least to a point where I am not second-guessing myself or getting so pissed off at other people that it affects my work. 

Something your work does so effectively is taking different sounds and processes and present them in a way that, I think, really shows a side of communities people don’t often think about. I think about what a place sounds like as much as I think about how a neighborhood looks or ‘feels’ and I think your work, more than anyone else I can think of, really embraces that idea. How do you think about sound and not only how it presents communities, but also what role it has in shaping and changing communities as well?

Over the past 5 or 6 years, I have made recordings in a community with issues dealing with environmental racism and disinvestment. These are very complex issues. These pieces were made within this context. There may be communities like this in other places and to hear what is going on somewhere else might give someone inspiration to deal with these issues in their own way. So in this way what I am doing adds to the conversation. 

I think there are certain practices where sound can shape/change a community. These practices are best used to complement other strategies of awareness, direct action, or delivery of services. Soundwalks are helpful in analyzing certain sites and their conditions. Like historic preservation, open space conservation, noise pollution. It can also be used as a self-care technique (Walking Meditation) in community programs dealing with violence, abuse, and PTSD.

Another thing about your work generally and especially on this new record, Black Brown Gray Green, that I find so striking are the blurred lines between the environmental recordings and the various instruments and electronics you play and how you filter these recordings using modular synthesis, etc. On “Marsh Filter,” for example, the way the sounds in the piece shift over its duration is so effective. It’s like I don’t even realize what’s happening until the piece is almost over, so it really plays with my perception of these recordings and the environment they came from. How do you approach these ideas when you are working on a piece like this (or “Reeds,” which has a similar effect), and what is your thought process like when it comes to figuring out how you want to present these recordings i.e. what processes/filters/etc to use or whether to just present them as is?

I find the lines between what is “natural” and what is man-made have been blurred by political and economic factors. For instance, there may be designated natural areas I go to but the boundaries of these areas are man-made. 

The decision sometimes comes at the time of choosing the site and when I’m recording. Once I finish recording I listen to the character of the recording and calibrate it with what I remember hearing. I use filters and EQ to bring out what I think makes the recording/site what it is. Sometimes I listen to the rhythm and timbre of a recording to see if the may be space for improvisation or a way I can reinforce what I recorded with any synth sounds.

What are you most looking forward to over the next year?

Producing more finding decent work and hopefully performing more.

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