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Sculpture Talks About Turning '50s Tape Recordings Into Electronic Music And How To Be A Real Audio-Visual Project

Signed to label Software, the electronic music/art-making team talked to us about chipping away at the barriers between audio and visual art.

It should be no coincidence that Reuben Sutherland and Dan Hayhurst met randomly as neighbors in London, but the chance encounter seems to have provided the lifeblood of their joint audio-visual project, Sculpture. The work of Sutherland and Hayhurst—animator/visual artist and musician/producer, respectively—thrives on so-called happy accidents and opportunities that put forth the possibility of unknown potentials, another concept which isn't all that dissimilar from Sculpture's beginnings as a largely improvisational live duo.

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"It was that simple," Sutherland tells The Creators Project via Skype about the decision to form Sculpture with Hayhurst. "It wasn't like a grand plan, but more like, let's just try something. We did one gig, and it was good, so we did another one." As naturally as that, the pair's self-proclaimed "opto-musical agglomerate" was born, and since their first record—a beautifully crafted picture-disc 12" covered in handmade zoetropic animations—released via Hamburg's Dekorder Records in 2010, they've been consistently chipping away at the barriers between audio and visual art.

Much in the same way that Sutherland and Hayhurst have coalesced their respective mediums into a coherent output, the two artists also treat the digital and physical worlds as two sides of the same creative coin. Many of the processes which yield Sculpture's psychedelic, freeform electronic music and dizzyingly immersive animations pass back and forth between tactile and virtual methods. Whether its Hayhurst feeding hand-spliced tape loops through Ableton Live's powerful software and back out into his Teenage Engineering OP-1 synth and sampler, or Sutherland crafting intricate patterns in Adobe Photoshop and AfterEffects before printing them out and cut-and-paste collaging them into mind-bending visuals, the inventive pair is constantly engaged in a conversation between the two decreasingly separate spaces. The results of Sculpture's ongoing discussions are best experienced in their loosely structured live A/V performances, but are perhaps more readily available in their fantastic video work online and, of course, their physically released records (or, as Hayhurst calls them, "industrial bi-products").

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Released last week via Oneohtrix Point Never's Brooklyn-based Software label, Membrane Pop is the fourth Sculpture album, and—between the uncompromising music, colorful packaging, and vibrant online visual components—is one that finds its creators presenting a full-bodied synthesis of their elaborate DIY techniques.

We wanted to learn more about the procedures that go into creating Sculpture's hybridized art, as well as the challenges of bringing digital art into a physical space (and, in some cases, back into the virtual world), so we got in touch with Hayhurst and Sutherland to chat about turning '50s reel-to-reel recordings (or "stored forms of human communication and information") into MIDI data, live performance as virtual reality, the internet's mutative power, and more.

The Creators Project: Sculpture describes itself with the unique term "opto-musical agglomerate," and it's interesting that you make the distinction between "agglomerate" and "conglomerate." Why is that?

Dan Hayhurst: Because I'm more into this idea of [Sculpture] being a sort of organic, molecular arrangement, rather than having a business or corporate relationship between the parts. But it's not like I gave a massive amount of deep thought to this. It's more about aesthetics, what my prefered associations are.

And what kind of work goes into achieving that organic nature with the music and visuals?

Reuben Sutherland: I suppose we don't really approach things with a particular aim, we just go into the studio and start playing around.

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DH: We're responding to perceptual stimuli. There's no real conceptual framework. It's more of a case of using perceptual and emotional stimuli in order to find that [organic nature] rather than make it, and sort of follow those cues no matter where they lead. We're trying to get away from ourselves and into some other realm.

Do you tend to work on the visual and musical aspects at the same time?

DH: We work on them at the same time as in we share a studio, so there's a lot of cross talk, but we don't sit down and say, "We're going to make this, and it's going to go with this." A lot of the time it's really spontaneous.

RS: I'm trying to make textures that are going to fit certain sounds that I think might happen. If some of those sounds do happen [while performing live], I hopefully have something up my sleeve to play, and if I can find it in time. Because I don't know when it's going to happen, when Dan is going to do something, or when he's going to make a change. It's more of a case for me of just library work, sitting there shuffling through these pieces of paper to find the animation and put it on the turntable.

DH: And I love that. It's like you're the most insane librarian ever. It's like having a computer with a sequencer punch card that you're going to feed into it to make the maddest computational calculation ever.

RS: It's like virtual reality.

Do you have similar experiences when creating your music, Dan?

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DH: No way, man. [laughs]

RS: He reaches into a big pile of random data, pulls it out, cuts it in half, and makes a loop.

DH: There is a real direct parallel, though, as I'm fairly often using random material. For instance, I use a lot of tapes, but I hardly ever listen through a tape looking for good bits. I just have a pile of unspooled tape on the floor that I just go at with scissors, pull something out, and just follow that and see where it leads. It's kind of a way of surprising yourself. It's similar in a way, because it's a super disorganized library of potential juxtapositions. It's like information, but in physical form.

I know there's also a bit of programming that goes into Sculpture. Can you elaborate on that?

DH: For both of us, we're using computerized processes to come up with raw material or elements that we're then going to transfer into another form of media, which is usually a type of physical media. In my case, I burn [the data] onto a CD and stick it in a CDJ, because it's more of a musical instrument. And I don't think a computer is, really. The kind of attention it requires takes too much focus, so I have to remove the screen to get loose and musical.

With the programming, I'll put like rhythmical material into the computer, and use fairly randomized processes to kind of blossom that into different rhythms or permutations of rhythms… There are processes and algorithms you can use to generate [new] things from [old] things. For instance, using Ableton, which is the main program I use, you can input melodic information from an old tape loop from the '50s, and use the computer to turn that into MIDI, which it always does in an imperfect way—and that's brilliant, I never want to see the day when it does that perfectly. You end up with these strange permutations of your source material, and you can follow those and kind of seek something. So the artist's or producer's role becomes one of filtering and editing, making aesthetic choices from these things that are being shown to you. It's almost like looking for something from your unconscious. Somewhere inside your brain is the emotional response that tells you which of those things is the beautiful thing, or the terrifying thing, or the thrilling thing.

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Reuben, how much of your visual work begins in a physical space before becoming the animations you make them into?

RS: Well, if they're based on photographs, they're photographs of physical things, usually, or just physical photographs. But then a lot of it is just abstracts that start in the computer, primitive shapes that are then warped and twisted, have color added to them, layered…

DH: There's a lot of drawing involved, as well.

RS: Yeah, but even the drawing I'm doing is on the computer. I just find it quicker, actually. I'm quite comfortable with drawing on screen.

Would you guys say that the internet plays a role in effecting the world that Sculpture creates?

RS: Yeah, it's got to.

DH: I don't know. It's really confusing, isn't it? It's so hard to latch on to anything. It seems so retrograde to say it's easier to latch on to a physical object, and I don't really feel like that, but if I spend too much time looking at the internet, I start to feel confused. So maybe the internet's contribution to Sculpture is one of confusion or distraction.

It's a really interesting medium to engage with, though. I really like the idea of setting something free. That you make it, and once you've made it and put it into the world, it's then beyond your control. I really love the idea of relinquishing control, and that is a way that the internet is really interesting. Things move so quickly and mutate and change meaning so quickly, and it creates this sort of semiotic chase.

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How do you feel the digital experience of Sculpture compares to the live, physical experience?

RS: I think it makes more sense to see it live, or to hold the record, play it, and see the animation for yourself.

DH: I agree, but why, though? I think it's extremely difficult to pin this thing down into a coherent output. The live thing is just what we do—that's the process, that's how we make the records.

It's the original form of Sculpture?

DH: Yeah, totally. The first time we ever played live we didn't rehearse or practice, and it was crazy. It was really good, and it was like this oscillation that generates so much energy. To pin that down into a record is really hard, but at least you have this scope to create this beautiful object and transmitter of information that can be contained in a small space. Whereas the internet is this enormous vat.

ut it's been great for us to make these small films and put them on the internet, and I don't think it's shit or anything. I think we do the internet a lot better than other people. [laughs] But still, it's only a reflection. Cultural product is a weird one, isn't it? It always has to be some sort of distillation of something much more powerful and energetic going on in human communication.

Images courtesy of the artists.

To find out more about Sculpture and purchase their music, visit Software's website: http://www.softwarelabel.net/

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