I have said and written a lot about Yann Novak’s music (and his new album, The Voice of Theseus, in particular), but somehow we had never connected for an interview until now. I admire the vulnerability Yann shows in his work. It is a thread that ties together so much of his work even as the conceptual framework and sonic palette shift and expands. On The Voice of Theseus, Novak takes risks with new approaches and new sounds, and the results are undeniably great. There is so much more to come.
The Voice of Theseus is out now on Room 40. Novak also runs Dragon’s Eye Recordings and can be found via his personal website.
Going back, what are some of your earliest memories or experiences related to music or sound? What are some of the real formative things from when you were young that have stuck with you?
I grew up in a very musical household. My mother was a guitar and piano player. She was proficient enough on both that she could hear a tune once and replicate it. She was also a huge classical and blues fan. My father has had radio shows on my hometown’s community radio station on and off since before I was born. In addition to sharing my mother’s love of classical and blues music, he also likes a lot of traditional music––if the first pressing was a 78, or if the copyright has passed into the public domain, then it’s for him. Within that period he leaned toward Asian, Eastern European, Greek, and American music. Within those, he has a preference for plucked string instruments like the pipa, bowed instruments like the Hardanger fiddle, or lutes like the oud.
All that led to almost all my memories involving music. It was a constant fixture in our house. Some memories are wonderful, like my mother enchanting me by casually playing Beethoven’s Für Elise in another room. Others still make me cringe, like my father embarrassing the hell out of me as a teenager by doing yoga in his underwear to a recording of pipa music when I had just gotten home with a group of friends.
Intertwined with the memories of music are also memories of all the playback devices. Both my parents were huge collectors, so side-by-side with their record and tape collections were record players, tape decks, and reel-to-reel players. My childhood home basically looked like a Moog promo video but without the synths.
Did you always want to be a musician or play music?
Not at all! My parents tried to get me to learn piano, guitar, violin, and later clarinet in middle school. I hated all of them. I was far more interested in creating things visually—drawing, painting, collaging, photography, and building things with Lego. In hindsight, I don’t think it was learning music I hated, just that my dyslexia made the act of learning really hard and deeply unpleasant for me, so anything that resembled that would repel me.
My entry into presenting and then making music was a desire to DJ in the Midwest rave scene in the 90s. I did that throughout my teens, then as I got older and we got closer to the turn of the century, I got into more fringe styles of electronic music and started to incorporate instruments and other gear into my setup. At the same time, I was still doing a ton of painting and drawing and thought of that as my main artistic output.
It was not until 2002-03 when I put a refurbished Mac laptop on a credit card that I really had the means to produce music of my own. That was the start of what I do today.
Among many other approaches to The Voice of Theseus is the use of vocal performance as primary source material for the sounds on the record. How did this idea first begin and how did you develop it into the approach you took with the record?
I think my work started to change in 2016-17 after I developed tinnitus. I first became aware of it at the beginning of a performance, when I would do these long fade-ins at the start of my sets. I got on stage, the audience went quiet, and while I was doing this two-minute fade-in I heard more ringing than my sound until the amplitude hit a certain threshold. After that, I went through a long period of listening to all different types of music trying to find things that offered relief, because what I used to love, say Éliane Radigue, had become intolerable to me because it just harmonized with the ringing.
The silver lining was I discovered all this other music I loved, most of it involving vocals and rhythm. Through this process, I learned that having something to follow like vocals and transient sounds like beats interrupted the ringing or made it hard for me to focus on the ringing. So for the last couple of years, I have been trying different methods of incorporating these elements into my work, in a sense so I can enjoy what I make again.
Vocals always seemed unattainable because I did everything myself and I can’t sing! But as I started to come to terms with all my perceptual differences and explore them in my work, I had this idea about using something fundamentally recognizable as a metaphor for that experience. Vocals seemed like the obvious choice. I felt like everyone has heard someone sing and most had at least tried to sing themselves. So, I just set out to see what happened!
And, adding to that, how did you go about choosing the vocalists for the album? I mean, they’re both incredible so I’m sure that’s a start!
There were a number of factors. I have always loved soulful vocals, but without any attachment to specific genres, so anything from Devendra Banhart or Anhoni to Labrinth or The Weeknd. Even if that’s not what I was asking the vocalists to do, that was the relationship I wanted to have with their work. Both of them fit the bill here.
Then, I wanted the exchange to happen in a space where I could be inexperienced. I have never asked someone to record vocals for me and I didn’t want to worry that my inexperience was going to offend or be a burden on them. I have been a fan of Dorian Wood since she released BOLKA in 2007 and met her shortly after that. So, through that relationship, I knew that I could fall flat on my face and Dorian would not judge or get offended. Luckily I don’t think I did, but knowing I could make the whole process much more comfortable.
With G. Brenner, I had just discovered his album Brushfire when I was first working through this concept. That album hit me immensely hard because it was about losing his mother to a very aggressive and quick-moving cancer. I lost my own mother to a similar type of cancer in a similar timeframe. So, I took a chance and reached out to Gabe and I was excited to find he was super open to the idea.
What were some of the challenges you faced in creating the album?
The major challenge was the huge gap between my aspirations for how I wanted to treat the vocals and my technical experience working with vocals. Surprise surprise, my experience with processing field recordings had very little practical crossover to processing vocals, particularly because I wanted the vocals to retain at least a bit of recognizability and I didn’t want to make these two beautiful vocalists sound like shit.
My goal was to complicate the vocals in a variety of ways, leaving some very recognizable, others unrecognizable, and the rest somewhere in between. I also wanted to blur authorship, so the cross-section of my listeners and Dorian’s and Gabe’s would not be able to pick them out.
Out of all my aspirations, I would say I pulled off about 25%, failed at 75%, then ended up with a ton of stuff I had never imagined. Some of the most unexpected outcomes were the lack of treatment on “A Monument to Oblivion” and the obliteration on “Patterned Behavior.”
The other challenge was working in a new BPM. Because my work has not really featured rhythm, I have been working at 60 BPM exclusively for over 10 years. I did this because I like using measure-based modulation and 8 measures at 60 BPM felt really nice to me and fell well outside the perceptual present, which was an important feature for my drone-based work. With the introduction of rhythm on some tracks I bumped it up to 82 BPM and that took a long time to acclimate to. I did this because I wanted room to explore rhythms that—even if I was working in half time—would still be fast enough to allow for subjective rhythmization. I also just can’t escape making slow music and 82 BPM was the lowest threshold for me to still feel the groove.
Can you talk more about your perceptual insecurity? How has it shaped your artistic practice?
The easiest one to explain is my partial color blindness. I knew from an early age that I was partially red/green color blind, but it was not until my 20s that I found out how prominent it was. I was walking with an ex in Seattle and commented that I loved the time of year when all the trees had white flowers on them…they were pink cherry blossoms. After that, and a few other incidents, I lost all confidence in picking colors, so I based all my video work off photographs that were not color-corrected. That way I did not have to account for the color choices. They were just what the camera captured.
Similarly, with sound, my tinnitus and hearing damage is bad enough that when working on headphones I will only hear some sounds in my right ear and I often flip my headphones to check to see if that sound is present in the left side as well. The ramification of that is that it’s very hard to trust what I am hearing because there is always this little voice asking “What can’t you hear out of both ears?”
My dyslexia had a more fundamental effect on my practice than the other two. It stopped me from pursuing higher education because being in special ed classes throughout school left me with little to no academic confidence. That had much more drastic implications in the visual art world vs music because the art world is so obsessed with pedigree. Fortunately, I have come to see that my lack of formal education is not a shortcoming. Instead, it has allowed me to see how higher education has been used to make the art world deeply exclusionary to people like myself. So, now I use that unique perspective to try and make my own work as inclusive as possible to as many people as possible.
How do you think the album challenges our understanding of reality?
My hope is that the album acts as a provocation to question how we experience reality. Because we each have our own perceptual differences or have no differences at all, I can’t really say what that change in understanding might be. But that is the space I always try to inhabit with my work. I have always thought that audiences will have the opportunity to create a deeper or more personal relationship with my work if I don’t mandate what that connection or experience should be. I think this approach offers a more authentic experience between the work and the audience while forfeiting some of the egotism that is traditionally assigned to authorship.
More generally, how do you think our perceptions of reality are shaped by our individual experiences?
It can be quite a bit depending on what those differences are. I didn’t know cherry blossoms were pink, my grandfather who was fully color blind would wear some truly terrible color combinations. But from his point of view, the patterns or shades of grey were working for him. So in his reality, everything was fine until someone else pointed out the discontinuity and treated it as a problem. I was expressing my love for the white blossoms on the trees when the discontinuity was pointed out to me and also treated as a problem.
So maybe the larger question I am exploring is: Are these discontinuities really a defect/deficit, or just a difference? In the larger culture war going on right now, there’s questioning around the validity of our individual internal experiences and whether or not other people should respect them. I like to imagine how I would have proceeded in life if not seeing pink had been framed as a difference rather than a problem. It’s the insidious crux of the culture war—that because my internal experience doesn’t align with the culturally acceptable one, I become unacceptable to the culture as a result. If we pivot to the example of my queerness—I knew I was queer at 10 years old, but in the dominant conservative narrative, both then and now, the assumption is that a 10-year-old can’t have that kind of insight into themselves. I wish queerness had been treated as a difference rather than a deviance because I love imagining a world where it was.
What surprised you the most about making this record?
This may be a boring answer or veer too much into the technical realm, but I had not imagined how hard mixing drums was going to be! Obviously, this is something that is totally new to me, so I should not be surprised that something I have no experience with was hard for me. I expected a learning curve with a lot of the new things I was doing and watched a lot of videos to help me try to prepare. But as a kinesthetic learner, none of it was going to really sink in until I was able to try it in practice. The kicks were pretty easy, but the sounds I used as my hi-hat, snare, and tambourine would sit in the mix in wildly different ways depending on the listening environment. In one environment, they would be inaudible, and in another, I would perceive them as the loudest thing in the song.
This is the type of situation where my perceptual insecurity can really wreak havoc. It will send me down these spirals of questioning “Is this a natural part of mixing a sound like this or are my ears failing me?” This is also why taking my perceptual differences head-on was important to me. I want to stop being derailed by them and hopefully get to a place where they simply contribute to my work sounding like me.
And lastly, what did you learn about yourself and your practice during the process of making this record?
I learned that I am my own worst enemy when it comes to trying something new. I finally released something that contains a ton of things I have been dipping my toes into for years but had always shelved the products of after second-guessing myself. Maybe all those rough drafts contributed to the success of those ideas on this album, but I always treated them like failures. So I am trying to learn to be kinder to myself when it comes to what I perceive as failure and to understand that what I am actually doing is just iterating. The funny thing is I can do it without self-criticism in every other aspect of my life. It always takes me a number of tries to get a recipe right; I iterate in the design process all the time; even this interview will get worked over three times before I send it back. So, why not let myself do the same within my practice? My fiancée is the only one that has to experience all the early drafts, and I feel way worse that he has to experience version 1.0 of a new recipe than I do about him having to hear the first draft of a song.